Democracy

Most of us are familiar with the famous quote of Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in 1947:

Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…

He was obviously quoting someone else’s idea. The problem of course is the meaning of the word democracy, as Churchill expressed it in other speeches. There is of course the apocryphal saying attributed to him, which is more dubious:

The best argument against Democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

It was said that Churchill could be extremely cynical, but not about democracy. At the time of his more profound utterances on the subject, he had only very recently seen the alternatives in Germany, Italy and Spain!

A lot of journalism these days is sensationalist and shoddily prepared and researched. As I have tried to inform myself as best as possible about the Brexit question, I have tended to find the Guardian and the BBC the most sober and objective sources. I rely on the internet rather than printed newspapers, and I admire the stand of the Guardian in asking for voluntary donations rather than put up a paywall. The Daily Telegraph has always been the mainstay of my family, but it has a paywall and many of the article titles are quite alarming as is the political tendency taking it somewhere to the Right of traditional English Conservatism. Much of Google News involves articles in the Daily Express and the Sun, promoters of bigotry and ignorance. The Daily Mail has been taken over by Remainers, but the audience it targets isn’t exactly me. Blogs and Facebook groups can feed us with things to read and add to the soup bubbling in the pot, but only so far.

The Freedom of the Press was one of the founding tenets of nineteenth-century Liberalism along with religious freedom, freedom of association, the separation of Church and State. The idea of a free press would serve to compartmentalise the political and social life of a country between the elected political parties and government, on one hand, and the legal system and press which would call political wrongdoing to account. Nowadays, with the Internet, we can all be journalists and pundits on the topics that interest us and our readers. Like good journalists, I try to be sober, objective and truthful – and all that depends on good sources of information and a critical mind – and above all, a “bullshit-o-meter”.

No single source is perfect, and we all tend to favour our own opinions and convictions. It is not without reason that there are four Gospels in the canonical Scriptures, three of them being called synoptic. There are also many other ancient writings, some also called gospels, notably in the Nag Hammadi collection of texts. Exegetes compare all these writings and arrive at a synopsis – something that is very helpful is establishing authenticity and objectivity, understanding the meaning of what Jesus and others said. The work goes on in comparison with other data and sources of information like archaeology and known Jewish and Roman texts. This is the way we should be reading sources and writings on current affairs.

A remarkable article is James Miller’s Could populism actually be good for democracy?

What I find remarkable is Miller’s depth of philosophical and historical reflection. I would go as far as saying that this is the best of journalism. The voter needs to be educated about the basics of political and social philosophy, questions like the common good, the purpose of law and how it works, questions of individualism and collectivism and how balance can be achieved. Much of our political philosophy and law is based on Christendom, but not all. Quite a lot is based on ancient Greek and Roman law, thus the need to have knowledge of works like Plato’s Republic. Obviously, this is out of the reach of most ordinary voters, but it would be unjust and unrealistic to make people sit examinations before being allowed to vote! In an ideal world, the press would educate the people according to their capacities and culture. I think this Guardian article goes a long way, though to a more cultured audience. The gutter press is a clear sign of the limits of the Liberty of the Press.

What is going on today? It is all very confusing, and when people feel that the wool is being pulled over their eyes, they become afraid. The conspiracy theory is often an attempt to understand clearly when there is nothing to be understood. When we read terms like National Populism, shivers go up and down our spines as we suspect a return of Nazism. Quite apart from the taboo put up by Godwin’s Law, the historical circumstances from 1919 to 2019 are totally different. The founding myths are totally different. We do not have the militaristic tradition of the Prussian army of World War I or easy credence in the many occultist themes that fascinated people in the late nineteenth century. There are parallels, however, like the rejection of mainstream party politics. Hitler rode piggyback on the failure of the short-lived Weimar Republic. We have to be critical if we are going to make any historical comparisons. However, I would give some credence to the idea that 1914 to 1989 was one long world war with two periods of truce and cease-fire. Nazism was discredited by the Nuremberg Trials, and Communism collapsed in 1989 (the iconic date). Men like Mélenchon here in France or Corbyn in the UK may have their activists still calling strikes and blocking roads, but their ideology is passé.

At the base of it all seems to be the idea that everything is the same whether the government is Conservative, Labour or Liberal. Unemployment, inequalities, law and order, economics and taxation, everything else. What about a revolution? Most people know that revolutions kill a lot of innocent people and bring out the worst in the dictators who rule the roost. Mob rule is even worse! Miller advances essentially the idea that democracy can be defended by challenging it. Human nature becomes complacent and corrupt until we know that we are worse off not having what we’ve got now.

Many political agendas are obviously illiberal, whilst being democratically elected. Eastern Europe is decreasingly tolerant towards Islam (which is understandable in view of the atrocities we read about, committed by Al Qaida, ISIS, etc.). There is a new push in the UK to bring back capital punishment, and the price of crimes like rape and drug dealing is going up. If a majority of people called out for re-establishing public executions by hanging, drawing and quartering or feeding them into a sausage machine between the west end of Oxford Street and Marble Arch, is that a mandate to the country’s government? Miller takes the logic to the reductio ad absurdam to bring us to question the limits of democracy. Tolerance is wearing thin with the erosion of law, order and decency.

This limit of democracy goes back all the way through history. It was opposed by some of the ancient Greeks as it was by Edmund Burke who called democracy “shameless”. The French Romantic Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) idealised the emerging ideology in America, as

John Adams warned, “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”.

Democracy as an ideal is only very recent in history, forged under the shadow of the guillotine in France and “re-arranged” by the Romantics. When injustice went beyond limits, people would revolt and usually end up hanging from the gallows, but the message survived. These disorders would create a kind of tension against the status quo, a kind of Hegelian dialectic view of history: thesis-antithesis- synthesis. The famous liberties in the early nineteenth century expressed the will of the people. The difficult thing was linking these popular actions with the mainstream national government. From this came the system of voting for the most trustworthy politician to express this popular synthesis. The way it happened under Robespierre in France left a lot of people with very short necks! In many countries, dictatorial regimes would claim a popular mandate, giving rise to the Communist expression “enemy of the people”, an idea rendered totally meaningless.

Democracy, as Churchill observed, is weak and unstable, but what are the alternatives? That is a good question from a man who declared war on Hitler in 1939 and brought our country through the worst days of darkness.

The Brexit question has brought something home to me, just like so-called liberalism or traditionalist integralism. The two sides excite intolerance, anger and hatred. Wicked billionaires belonging to a sinister oligarchy or “human reptiles” are seeking their advantage from two contradictory positions. I remember my dogmatic theology professor mentioning in the 1980’s that the pope was being attacked by “traditionalists” and “liberals” for the same reason from two opposite viewpoints. I drew the conclusion of calling the two either Scylla and Charybdis in reference to the two ship-wrecking rocks in Greek mythology or Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The opposing forces actually seem to be representing the same agenda understood in different ways. This is one big obstacle to democracy.

What is liberalism? This is one that Miller takes to heart. To begin with, democracy is not liberalism. The two concepts are distinct. I sympathise with liberalism in its early nineteenth-century meaning in association with Romanticism, but not with contemporary movements using that word to mean the opposite – illiberal, intolerant. I empathise with that movement of two hundred years ago, as with some aspects of what I experienced as a child in the 1960’s. Liberalism must be linked to “nobility of spirit” as Rob Riemen coined it, because it was the only way in the 1930’s to avoid getting sucked into the Seig Heil fervour. There has to be something more than the intellect in humanity.

I belong to a Church whose entire raison d’être is the battle against liberalism, that liberalism being meant as the denial of the sacred, relativism in doctrinal teaching, the de-sacralisation of the liturgy, the overturning of traditional moral teachings and the ordination of women. This was in the 1970’s in America a religious populist reaction in the face of the vacuous complacency of the mainstream Anglican churches worldwide. I know of no Anglican Catholic Church bishop who would advocate being in a totalitarian regime under someone like Franco or Pinochet, resurrecting the Inquisition with the right to torture people, working towards a theocracy, etc. All the Anglican Catholic bishops are much more liberal (with the small “l”) than some of the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditionalists you find on Facebook and elsewhere! The difference is felt, and I am at home in an Anglican Catholic Church that has become stable and peaceful. May it never become complacent and vacuous!

Back to secular politics, why entrust our fate to the idiotocracy of people who are stupid enough to support incompetence, corruption and self-destructive policies. That is transparently an idea from a remainer, but could have been one from a leaver two years ago.

What are the alternatives? Aristocracy and Monarchy? We have both in the UK, but the political system is run almost like a republic, with the Queen giving her Royal Assent to new laws. She has little choice about the matter unless she wants to create an incident like Queen Victoria did in her innocence. I have spent time with French monarchists, and I have even met the Duc d’Anjou at a ceremony in Paris. Dieu et la Roi! – in the late twentieth century… It just isn’t serious. In Europe, we were finished with dictators in 1945 and Franco went largely unnoticed outside Spain until he died his death in 1975. Again, I was on holiday with my family in Spain in 1969 and the police made everyone stop on the road. A convoy of big black cars with tinted glass passed by. Apparently Franco was in one of them. It was an amusing anecdote of my childhood. Well, what else is there?

Perhaps we can learn a lot from Plato and ancient Greece, the Philosopher Kings. How do you make sure they are lovers of wisdom and not using the words as a euphemism for something else? In the State like in the Church, there needs to be more participation to counter the tendency to clericalism and lust for power. The jury system in Crown and Assise courts is a leftover from this ideal, the final judgement being made by ordinary people without knowledge of law, and a summing up by a judge. Ordinary people need to have the power in a real way and not delegate it to those who are less and less trustworthy. The problem with this is the lack of education and training for the tasks in question. You have to know the law in order to administer it to punish a criminal or settle a civil dispute.

The idea attributed to Churchill seems to come from Plato. The crowd of people has no knowledge of justice and truth. There is little that is less intelligent than a crowd of people, for example at a football match. Some have come to the conclusion that human intelligence disappears when the group numbers more than three!

Miller tells us that

Polybius also argued that democracy had a potentially constructive role to play. He suggested that the most durable political regime would be a republic that combined the three pure forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy and democracy) into interlinked branches that would check and balance each other, enabling a well-ordered republic to navigate the winds of time “like a well-trimmed boat”.

Indeed, many factors contribute to the trim of a boat in the water and under sail. The mainsail and the jib exert contrary forces to give the boat lee helm and weather helm according to the point of sail and the strength of the wind. The UK has had this combined government for centuries, and it has given stability at times when European countries were constantly at war and rent by revolutions and riots. England always had the knack of avoiding revolutions by instituting reforms asked for by the people. This Pax Britannica is a gift that subsides even though we no longer have an empire. But it too is fragile, and we see the effect of our Queen is extreme old age and many incertitudes in her family and succession.

Rousseau came up with the idea of a social contract. This was unheard of in eighteenth-century France. Those in power could use force when necessary, but it was accountable to the ordinary people. A contract is bilateral, a binding agreement. He saw the writing on the wall already in 1763. The French Revolution needs a lot of study from different points of view, using historical methodology and trying to understand the different powers in play. It was a bloodbath, literally, but it gave us modern France. I have lived in this country for decades, but I still find myself not coming to terms with the mentality and culture of French Republicanism. I now confront it at the Mairie and the Préfecture as I go and sort out paperwork for my citizenship. Apparently, there will be an examination about our knowledge of the French Republic and its ethos. All I will be able to say sincerely is that it is something foreign to me, but I know of no viable alternative at present. One is usually rewarded for candour, because a candid person can be trusted with the noble ideas at the basis of what they are trying to do in their own French way.

I think I would feel even more at sea in the USA. I have come across nastiness on Facebook, gun-toting rednecks, people with such extreme opinions as would make us wince in Europe. How is that possible in a country that extols freedom, tolerance and the best of the human spirit? Over there, it seems so normal, and almost a natural check between the extremes of liberalism and demagogy. It works over there. For how long? There are people over there calling Trump “Hitler”, but it doesn’t wash. The ideologies are totally different as to the reason for authority, law and order. Trump is an American and was nurtured in that culture.

Public opinion is something that can be so easily swayed and manipulated by demagogues and others through a captive press and modern internet communications. The old films of German crowds in the 1930’s are impressive. Observe their expressions, not so much the leaders and military men, but the women and children. It all depends on education. But whose education?

Miller is of the opinion that modern democracy is a sham “whether liberal or socialist or nationalist”. However, any regime is accountable to ordinary citizens at the polls. How about this: we are in “a world in which faith, deference and even loyalty have largely passed away, and the keenest of personal admiration seldom lasts for long” according to the historian John Dunn, quoted by Miller. When democracy is threatened, people will cling to it, however fickle they show themselves to be in periods of peace and prosperity.

If someone like Hitler were to appear on the scene today, how far would he get? We like to believe that he would be dismissed as a crank because of our having learned the lessons of history. All the same, there are people reacting in the same way now as Hitler’s criminal cronies did in the 1930’s and during World War II. One idea that came into my mind was the possibility of a return to feudalism, but the old landlords had obligations to their serfs as the billionaire oligarchs lack them or the least amount of care. That could one day become something very messy.

We are just going to have to follow the movement, remaining awake and critical. How attached are we to our freedom? What does freedom mean? I arrive at no conclusion, any more than Miller or any honest thinker. It might go very badly or might lead to another reign of peace and freedom. It goes far beyond the European Union or the erstwhile British Empire. It goes far beyond Europe as populism spreads to South America and around the world. A fire has been lit. We can but pray lest we enter into darkness…

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7 Responses to Democracy

  1. Democracy is actually preferred by oligarchs, as it enables the oligarchy to deflect responsibility for the policies they buy from the government. Long term, I expect governance will become more aligned with ownership than democratic rule. Many countries are simply incapable of self-rule; treating them like Westphalian sovereigns is a cruel joke. They’ll be conquered, or just walled off as bandit-states. I’m not just talking about Russia, the US and China. Israel is a serious country. So are Ethiopia, Croatia, and others. But I think eventually somebody will just take over places like Haiti and Honduras. A place like Angola which has scorched its own earth and killed every elephant and other fauna probably won’t be so lucky. Angola will become a bandit-state and eventually wiped out.

    Populism, unlike say, Marxism, is more just always there, and when the pendulum swings too far in the favor of deviants, criminals and foreigners, then the people vote for the strong man instead of effeminate, simpering conservatives or starry-eyed liberals. In other words, if you don’t want a Reich, don’t support a Weimar.

    • This is not to cause any kind of anger of bitterness, but is intended to be in a friendly spirit. For an anti-Gnostic, your ideas quite resemble the theory of the hylics, psychics and pneumatics. The first category according to the Valentinians and earlier are those who seem to be predestined to a materialistic existence without any aspiration to the spiritual or even to religious observance. From this theory in historical Gnosticism and Manichaeism came Augustine’s predestination and what Calvin and Jansenius made of it. There is something to this theory, and its influence is found in Nietzsche: the Ubermensch and the amorphous mass of humanity that has to be ruled by the strong. Nazism was a perversion of Nietzsche’s ideas and the “survival of the fittest” of Darwin. This mentality has persisted in America, because it has never been to the end of its logic as it did in Europe.

      The saying attributed to Churchill that the average voter is unworthy of being consulted about the direction of his country holds a lot of truth. People vote tribally, or worship a charismatic personality and have no idea of political and social philosophy. What really seems to have been in Churchill’s mind is that democracy is one big sham, but nothing better has ever been found.

      I have given a lot of thought to cosmopolitanism and tribalism. Perhaps the former is necessary in, terms of philosophy and the mind of the pneumatic, and the latter in terms of law, politics, rule in a country or tribe or collection of tribes. We live at different levels. I find it very confusing to find the same terms like “liberalism” and “democracy” used both for philosophy and economics. The so-called “liberal” billionaire oligarch is in reality the strongest because money can buy anything – except the spirit and the higher things.

      Perhaps the answer is a totalitarian society – with those who pass special examinations being cut some slack to pursue wisdom and spiritual life. The problem is who does the deciding, who sets the standards, who has the formula that will be good for all. In the end of the day, those of us who do aspire to anything higher than money and power have to hole up out in the countryside and wash our hands of those who “don’t get it”. It sounds selfish and unchristian, but nothing suits everybody. Criminals belong in prisons and wise men belong in beautiful libraries and churches. Which are we?

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I regret that I have never yet caught up with Eric Voegelin’s Der autoritäre Staat (Wien, 1936), translated as The Authoritarian State: An Essay on the Problem of the Austrian State, translated by Ruth Hein, edited by Gilbert Weiss, with “Historical Commentary on the Period” by Erika Weinzierl (UMissouriP, 1999) as his comments about it in the first edition of his Autobiographical Reflections are so interesting.

        Meanwhile, another Political Philosopher, none of whose work I have yet read (but much of which sounds very interesting, judging by his Wikipedia article), A. James Gregor, has written an article perhaps complementary to this post in some respects:

        https://www.breitbart.com/politics/2018/11/05/a-james-gregor-donald-trump-fascism-and-populism/

      • Nazism–fascism–is a uniquely European phenomenon. Americans simply do not have that view of the State. We also relieved Europe of primary responsibility for defending the Fulda Gap so you could be social democrats. You’re welcome. You’re also looking at Americans from the wrong end. You see individualism and frontier-capitalism as ending up with that Prussian anthill. Actually, we just want to be wealthy and lavish money on our college football teams.

        Democracy is just counting up the rifles and everybody agreeing to go home instead of staying and fighting. It’s well-suited for things like the township deciding on the roads; deciding between competing visions for a country of millions of people, not so much. Democracy doesn’t actually “decide” anything. It only decides who’s probably going to win the fight between the competing visions if it comes to that.

        What Venezuela needs right now is an anti-democratic military coup. Socialism doesn’t work, but the majority of Venezuelans aren’t smart enough to realize it. They think things can be righted with the right people. They will starve to death fighting over who gets to run the dole.

        Egypt had an election and ended up with a parliament controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, so the more secular-minded military overthrew the government and installed a more modern executive. Egypt still has a problem with its citizens killing their Coptic fellows and the government, to its credit, is tracking down militants.

        Democracy has all sorts of terrible incentives which is why I expect it to be gradually replaced with ownership models, so if you don’t like your current landlord or the landlord doesn’t like you, you can go find another one. The Italian city-states seemed to do this quite nicely, and were self-owned. I half-jokingly say we should just sell all those so-called States around the world that are, as usual, failing, to the billionaires, who can’t think of anything better to do with their money than buy government bonds anyway. Haiti, for example, simply cannot rule itself, and makes its problems other people’s problems. This is a long way off, but I expect the eventual solution will be for somebody to own Haiti, aligning governance with ownership incentives instead of the mercenary incentives of democracy.

      • I agree that it isn’t a pretty picture. You may well be right in that money – enough of it – will buy anything. The trouble is what the billionaire gets back from his investment. I have never understood the idea of buying debt, though I suppose it’s a question of getting the interest money which would be more than what you pay for the debt from the other creditor. Feudalism it is, once the man with the fat cigar and flashy military uniform has finished sending the undesirables to the firing squad, but the new landlords will have to show a bit of care for the serfs to avoid revolutions. The mind boggles. It doesn’t seem to be an era for having children!

  2. Rev22:17 says:

    First, there’s a big difference between a democracy, in which all citizens collectively decide each issue, and a republic, in which various officials chosen by the citizens, either directly or indirectly, decide the issues that fall within their respective jurisdictions. Democracy historically has been workable only on the scale of a village because it simply is not practicable for individual citizens to be sufficiently informed to make intelligent decisions on the broader spectrum of issues that arise in a larger realm while contributing to the economic growth of a society.

    That said, the viability of either a democracy or a republic over the long term requires citizens who are well educated, informed, and motivated to work together and to vote for the well-being of their society. In this context, the failure of our educational system here in the States, especially in urban areas, is a matter of grave concern — failed schools have produced generations of voters who don’t understand the consequences of the policies advocated by the candidates who garner their support. When a “One Percenter” decides to scrap his yacht because he can’t afford the cost to operate and maintain it, it’s not the “One Percenter” who suffers. It’s the former crew of his yacht who are suddenly unemployed. Or, as the late U. S. President Ronald Reagan once quipped about members of the other party who enacted heavy taxes on “the rich” (prior to his presidency, a top federal income tax bracket of 90% in addition to state income tax rates that exceeded 10% in some states), “They aimed at the rich, and missed.” But many voters here in the States fail to comprehend this.

    It’s very interesting to look at the Socialists’ playbook when they sought to take over western Europe through the political process after World War II. There were three sets of institutions that they infiltrated and hijacked first: (1) the educational institutions (primary and secondary schools, colleges, and universities), (2) the leadership of the major labor unions, and (3) the major media (both news and entertainment). By controlling these three sets of institutions, they found that they had near-total control of the flow of information to the general population — which enabled them, through selective reporting, to sway popular opinion in favor of their candidates and political agenda. The rest is history: most of western Europe tilted dramatically to the left and voted their candidates into power, and the Socialist agenda has stifled most western European economies.

    The “far left” has attempted to use the same playbook here in the States over the past few decades, gaining control of the same elements of society, but there are several factors that have greatly diminished its effectiveness.

    >> 1. Major labor unions represented about 90% of the work force in Europe, and that percentage apparently still holds on much of the continent. Here in the States, union representation has gone from a high of about 50% of the work force in the late 1950’s to less than 10% today. The only sector in which union representation has grown in that period is government (“civil service”) employees. Thus, the voice of union leadership is a lot less consequential.

    >> 2. Many major cities have secondary newspapers that have not fallen into the hands of the radical elements, and that often report details of news stories that the supposed “newspapers of record” happen to omit. Examples of such papers include the New York Post, the Washington Times, and the Boston Herald. In the broadcast forum, Fox News does likewise.

    >> 3. The phenomenon of “talk radio” — radio programming on which listeners call in to discuss the contemporary political and social issues with the host — has consistently exposed the bankruptcy of much of the agenda of the political left, to the point that no talk show with a host on the political left has survived.

    >> 4. The Internet has provided fora such as blogs and discussion boards on which every citizen can report what he or she sees and experiences in his or her community and opine on the issues of the day, often generating stimulating discussion. These sources often contain details of news stories that don’t support the “progressive” agenda, which traditional major media now omit from their accounts.

    The fact that this playbook has proven significantly less effective here in the States over the past couple decades is a source of frustration for the self-styled “progressive” elements behind it, who are driving the worst of the rancor here, though their supporters in the traditional major media obviously try to portray it otherwise. Unfortunately, the recent tactics of unsubstantiated innuendo apparently bordering on perjury in their effort to block the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court of the United States is barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It’s the same radical “progressives” who back violent protests and riots by groups like Antifa, the Black Panthers, and other bad actors.

    Norm.

    • I saw this comment yesterday on my mobile phone during my visit to England this weekend for Church business. I will read it a few more times, but one thing is coming through: a kind of binary choice between nationalist authoritarianism or whatever you want to call it in the American context – and then your antifas, snowflakes, lefties, SJW’s, etc. Of course I’m European (English with long experience of Latin, French and Germanic cultures) and our experience is different from that of the Americans. If I look at such a choice, I don’t identify with anything, and so I try to understand things through history and philosophy. I am not a politician, nor will I ever be – I have neither the money nor the absence of moral conscience needed. I’ll try to give a more reasoned response in these next few days.

      If I identify with some kind of “liberalism”, it isn’t the modern liberalism of “identity politics”, etc. but a much earlier response to the crisis of the Enlightenment. When I read the events of that time (about 1780 to 1830) into our own current events, I understand things in a completely different way.

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