October 10, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
The Democratic Mirage, Part V
THE WORTHIER PROPONENTS of democracy—those, that is, who perceive the real state of affairs in the present manifestation of democracy, but who are nonetheless unwilling to abandon their love for the people—will surely be ready with any number of suggestions for institutional remedies for the problems that we have identified. By tweaking this or that wire of the present system, they seem to believe, they might adjust the tensions to the ideal point, until the entire machine of state is somehow tense for the most remarkable leaps. By changing law, by changing constitutions, the claim seems to go, one may obviate the present wretchedness and permit the virtues of democracy to shine forth. Such proponents are truly the sons of the Enlightenment—in all senses.
In the first place, it must be recognized that any such attempt is equivalent to a concession that democracy in and of itself, far from being the ideal form of government, far even from “working,” leads almost as a matter of course to one of the worst forms of society ever produced. It thus appears to be a species of wonderful naïveté to hold that through this or that alteration in the structure, the builders will be made any more benevolent or competent or the denizens any more intelligent or informed. But the simplest refutation of such ingenuity is simply this: if intelligent and authoritative men of good will are capable of engineering a worthy system whose virtue depends on its institutional integrity, than cunning and extraordinarily wealthy individuals of bad faith are certainly as capable of subverting that same system and bending its innermost tendencies to their will. If “law” is merely mechanical in its function, so that a good law here makes a good law everywhere, then all it takes is a single generation of slick operators to adjust the mechanism at its weakest or most manipulable points, forcing the system to work toward a different and even contrary end.
Others yet, holding nearer to the spirit of democracy, prefer the “homeopathic” remedy to our ills. Democracy, these men claim, has never yet been purely established in the world, and therein lies the true problem. They would fain seek to establish democracy democratically—that is, without the intercession of finance, representatives, mechanisms or institutions. They envision democracy on a small, not to say communal, scale, and at a local level. They proceed toward precisely the same end as the Communists, choosing only to take the low rather than the high way. They take their bearings by an abundant awareness of what is dangerously superficial and redundant in the present system; they believe that in erasing all of this, in culling the dross, in simplifying, in paring all things down to a more “human scale,” they might avoid a relapse into the vain monstrosity of the present, or into any of the other egregious and fundametally sick prodigies which have historically issued from out of the democratic womb. Their view relies on full recognition of the folly of our current institutions—but also on a specific interpretation of the whole past as being of a kind with this present, only not as “advanced” in its abuses of power nor in the mechanisms and tools at its disposal. These men make no distinctions, that is to say, between the kingships and aristocracies of old on the one hand, and the contemporary democracies and theocracies on the other, but consider all of these systems to be part and parcel of a single category, variations on a unique theme, outwardly diverse but inwardly slave to the same gross manifestations of greedy “power.” And they make this critique, without ever rising to awareness of that “power,” as they understand and intend it, is an exclusively modern idea, held in ovo precisely in the dawn of modernity, and as unfamiliar to past epochs as indeed the very contemporary notion of democracy itself.
Two responses are to be made to these purist defenders of democracy, whom we may, for useful shorthand, refer to as anarchists (for every pure vision of democracy, in the end, is really a vision of “anarchy”). The first is identical to the response that Plato, first through Glaucon and then through Socrates, protested against such an idea in the Republic, after Socrates had drawn his sketch of the “healthy city”: “If you were providing for a city of pigs…on what else would you feed them than this?” And Socrates, tacitly acquiescing to the argument, presses on to the “fevered city,” which reveals itself to be the true “city in speech,” the truly just city. For the city of pigs, whatever else it might be, is not a city of men, a city of human virtue, and therefore cannot be just. The same can and must be said against libertarians and anarchists and anarchoids of all stripes—but that is matter which is best left to the cultural critique of democracy.
In the second place, however, one really must ask if these theoreticians, such as they are, do not retain in full force the fundamental weakness and illusion inherent to all democratic thought of all epochs: namely, the belief in the sovereignty of the people—carrying this marvelous illusion, however, to an entirely different level. For present it however you will—any government “by, for, and of the people” drags the demos behind it wherever it goes, and cannot have done with the failures, weaknesses, and baseness of that remarkable human hodgepodge. These anarchists, as indeed every democratic theoretician from the first to the last, necessarily posit the perfectibility of the human being as such, necessarily presuppose that through education and proper upbringing any given human being can be molded into a “good citizen,” meaning a citizen capable at once of caring for the well being of the whole of the commonweal, and also of seeing with adequate clarity how to manifest that caring into efficacious and useful legislation. They all of them suppose, that is to say, the tabula rasa of the human soul, which they can fill however they please. They are deniers to a one of the idea of any resistant and persistent human nature: they are anti-naturists par excellence.
The only variant of such thinkers to in any way escape this damnably modern and maddeningly Enlightenment vision of the human being are those who premise their democraticalness on some notion of hierarchy among human populations. They believe, to wit, that amongst certain groups of human beings—select human groups, that is, which are naturally characterized by a generally innate sense of “civic duty,” by a feeling for the whole over the individual, by sympathy for their neighbor and for the plight of others, by political uprightness and a proclivity toward honest dealings in general—democracy is possible; anywhere else, it becomes a mere wicked farce. And hardly can one deny this proposition, which has been proven to some extent by history itself. The question here of course becomes if it is desirable for the peoples of such quality to adopt a system which tacitly denies the very notion of quality—if there is not something inherently contradictory about it, precisely because such groups display such remarkable characteristics. But that, again, returns us to the question of the cultural critique of democracy, which falls beyond our present purview, though in fact it really and in the last analysis contains it. — In any case, it must be said that this kind of “democrat” is a very rare animal, and has in the end very little in common with his ostensible, and really much more democratic, brethren. Most democrats of our own or any age fall into the category of the anti-naturists: even in antiquity the “liberals” were moving in that direction. How much more so, then, their very unillustrious heirs in the contemporary world!
But returning precisely to our contemporaries, let us argue the matter on their own plane, for here we have already escaped the narrow limits in which fish like those still know how to swim. We limit ourselves to a mere practical observation. Supposing—and it is a devil of supposition—that sufficient numbers of “the people” might be persuaded to form small communities of the utopic variety these thinkers have in mind—supposing furthermore—no less diabolic of a supposition—that these same human beings might be of a caliber sufficient to see both to the practical and to the ethical aspects of democracy. Well and good! And what of the rest of humanity? Will they not continue as ever they have done? And even if, by some miracle, it be but a fragment of the population that so continues, shall they not still have amongst them precisely the “democratic devils,” the very same “overachieving” power- and gold-hungry monsters who even today have brought much greater societies than “cities of pigs” to heel? And how shall our little anarchist communities hold their own against the monetary and technological, perhaps even numerical, advantage represented by non-anarchical societies, when these last come for them, as they certainly sooner or later shall? And—most especially, most pressingly—how shall they resist the technological superiority which those men will be able to purchase and harness for themselves?
But of course—it is senseless to hope for anything of the kind, and our good democrats really do not hope for it. They have much more ambitious ideas; they foresee a transmutation of the entire globe, the entire human population, into a new state of “awareness.” Thus we come to the real but hidden root in any such idealistic anarchical conceptions: one must believe that the present historical juncture is ripe for democracy of this kind, that this form of democracy is simply waiting to spring into reality from out of the rich chaotic undersoil of history, because its time has finally arrived. It is not at all mere accident which leads a man like Fukayama to proclaim the “end of history” in liberal democracy, or which leads countless others to crave a global “open society.” To believe in democracy—not in this or that country or at this or that historical period, but to its very depths—one must perforce believe that mankind has reached an appropriate stage in its “evolution,” and is now, thanks perhaps to its modern technology, but also thanks to the long preparation of the Enlightenment, finally in a position to enter into this new and fundamentally “utopian” stage of human history. One must believe, in short, in a benevolent brand of historicism, a kind of ineluctable or at the very least absolutely feasible progressive rise in the level of humanity, up to precisely the “end of history” in a final and totally ecumenical anarco-democratic reality.
The full refutation of such an idea is this must be long, for it goes to the very heart of modernity, the very core of the modern project. We cannot venture down those winding paths here. Let it suffice, then, to mention merely a single excellent reason for taking the historico-democratico-triumphalist vision of “human progress” with a steep grade of skepticism: it is precisely the latest manifestation of that most natural, and as we have seen most poisonous and intellectually dangerous, optimism which besets each and every human being within democracy as such. This final frontier of democratic theory, which in some corners now announces itself as “the future” or even (impertinence of impertinence!) the last best hope for humankind, is precisely nothing other than the remotest instance of the democratic spirit at work in the realm of ideas: and for that reason it is a hundred times more likely to represent the dying breath of democracy, than its re-inspiration in some new and final form.
Thus in closing it were well for us to remind ourselves of a simple but essential precept of the crisis into which we have entered. It is normal for us to desire to preserve those aspects of our present condition of which we are fondest. Particularly as we be men of the Right—and there is no one today who thoroughly opposes democracy who does not pertain to the Right—it is our innermost tendency to wish to preserve, to conserve, whatever is just and good. Not everything that has emerged from the past five hundred years is rotten, and much of it has become, at least for this moment, desirable and necessary. We will cling to some of it by the force of our nostalgia, if not our reverence. But well must we resist the siren’s call to enamor ourselves of our disease, merely because it is our own. Modernity must be opposed—but it must be opposed with more than a dream.