[Paleopsych] Robert Conquest: Downloading Democracy

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Robert Conquest: Downloading Democracy
Issue Date: Winter 2004/05, Posted On: 12/22/2004

    The common addiction to general words or concepts tends to produce
    mind blockers or reality distorters. As Clive James has put it,
    "verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly and
    continuously seen by its possessors, is an unbeatable way of blurring
    reality until nothing can be seen at all."

    "Democracy" is high on the list of blur-begetters--not a weasel word
    so much as a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word. The conception is,
    of course, Greek. It was a matter of the free vote by the public
    (though confined to males and citizens). Pericles, praising the
    Athenian system, is especially proud of the fact that policies are
    argued about and debated before being put into action, thus, he says,
    "avoiding the worst thing in the world", which is to rush into action
    without considering the consequences. And, indeed, the Athenians did
    discuss and debate, often sensibly.

    Its faults are almost as obvious as its virtues. And examples are
    many--for instance, the sentencing of Socrates, who lost votes because
    of his politically incorrect speech in his own defense. Or the
    Athenian assembly voting for the death of all the adult males and the
    enslavement of all the women and children of Mytilene, then regretting
    the decision and sending a second boat to intercept, just in time, the
    boat carrying the order. Democracy had the even more grievous result
    of procuring the ruin of Athens, by voting for the disastrous and
    pointless expedition to Syracuse against the advice of the more
    sensible, on being bamboozled by the attractive promises of the
    destructive demagogue Alcibiades.

    Even in failure, the thought-fires it set off went on burning. But the
    views it posed did not really return to Europe and elsewhere until a
    quarter of a millennium ago. Thus it was not its example but its
    theory that hit the inexperienced thinkers of the European
    Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the inheritance was less about the
    Periclean need for debate than about the need to harness the people
    (to a succession of rulers). And though the broader forces of real
    consensual rule began to penetrate, from England and elsewhere (such
    as the early New England town meetings or those of Swiss rural
    cantons), they had to compete in the struggle for the vote with
    inexperienced populations and "philosophical" elites.

    The revival of the concept of democracy on the European continent saw
    this huge stress on the demos, the people. They could not in fact
    match the direct participation of the Athenian demos, but they could
    be "represented" by any revolutionary regime claiming to do so--often
    concerned, above all, to repress "enemies of the people." Also, the
    people, or those of military age, could be conscripted in bulk--the
    levZe en masse that long defeated more conventional armies. As the
    19th century continued, the people could be polled in plebiscites and
    thus democratically authenticated. Napoleon III, of course, relied on
    this, and it is clear that he actually had high majority support. In
    any case, the new orders, democratic or not, had to seek or claim
    authentication by the people, the masses, the population.

    Another aspect of premature "democracy" is the adulation of what used
    to be and might still be called "the city mob" (noted by Aristotle as
    ochlocracy). In France, of course, in the 1790s, a spate of ideologues
    turned to the Paris mob, in riot after riot, until the 18th Brumaire,
    Napoleon's coup of 1799. The ploy was that, as A. E. Housman put it, a
    capital city with far fewer inhabitants could decide the fate of the
    country's millions.

    That democracy is not the only, or inevitable, criterion of social
    progress is obvious. If free elections give power to a repression of
    consensuality, they are worse than useless. We will presumably not
    forget that Hitler came to power in 1933 by election, with mass and
    militant support. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was
    effected by constitutional intrigues backed by "mass demonstrations."
    We need hardly mention the "peoples' democracies" and the 90 percent
    votes they always received. As to later elections, a few years ago
    there was a fairly authentic one in Algeria. If its results had been
    honored, it would have replaced the established military rulers with
    an Islamist political order. This was something like the choice facing
    Pakistan in 2002. At any rate, it is not a matter on which the simple
    concepts of democracy and free elections provide us with clear

    "Democracy" is often given as the essential definition of Western
    political culture. At the same time, it is applied to other areas of
    the world in a formal and misleading way. So we are told to regard
    more or less uncritically the legitimacy of any regime in which a
    majority has thus won an election. But "democracy" did not develop or
    become viable in the West until quite a time after a law-and-liberty
    polity had emerged. Habeas corpus, the jury system and the rule of law
    were not products of "democracy", but of a long effort, from medieval
    times, to curb the power of the English executive. And democracy can
    only be seen in any positive or laudable sense if it emerges from and
    is an aspect of the law-and-liberty tradition.

    Institutions that differ in the United States and the United Kingdom
    have worked (though forms created in other countries that were
    theoretically much the same have often collapsed). That is to say, at
    least two formally different sets of institutions have generally
    flourished. It seems that the main thing they share is not so much the
    institutions as the habits of mind, which are far more crucial, and,
    above all, the acceptance of the traditional rules of the political

    More broadly, in the West it has been tradition that has been
    generally determinant of public policy. Habituation is more central to
    a viable constitution than any other factor. Even the Western
    "democracies" are not exactly models of societies generated by the
    word, the abstract idea. Still they, or some of them, roughly embody
    the concept, as we know it, and at least are basically consensual and
    plural--the product of at best a long evolution.

    The countries without at least a particle of that background or
    evolution cannot be expected to become instant democracies; and if
    they do not live up to it, they will unavoidably be, with their
    Western sponsors, denounced as failures. Democracy in any Western
    sense is not easily constructed or imposed. The experience of Haiti
    should be enough comment.

    What we can hope for and work for is the emergence, in former rogue or
    ideomaniac states, of a beginning, a minimum. The new orders must be
    non-militant, non-expansionist, non-fanatical. And that goes with, or
    tends to go with, some level of internal tolerance, of plural order,
    with some real prospect of settling into habit or tradition.

    Democracy cannot work without a fair level of political and social
    stability. This implies a certain amount of political apathy. Anything
    resembling fanaticism, a domination of the normal internal debate by
    "activists" is plainly to be deplored. And democracy must accept
    anomalies. As John Paul Jones, the American naval hero, sensibly put
    it in 1775, "True as may be the political principles for which we are
    now contending, . . . the ships themselves must be ruled under a
    system of absolute despotism." The navy, indeed, is an extreme case;
    no democratization in any real degree makes sense, any more than it
    does in, say, a university, at the other end of the spectrum.

    Democratization of undemocratizable institutions is sometimes
    doubtless the expression of a genuine utopian ideal, as when the
    Jacobins by these means destroyed the French navy. But more often it
    is (in the minds of the leading activists, at least) a conscious
    attempt to ruin the institutions in question, as when the Bolsheviks
    used the idea to destroy the old Russian army. When this, among other
    things, enabled them to take power themselves, they were the first to
    insist on a discipline even more vigorous.

    In its most important aspect, civic order is that which has created a
    strong state while still maintaining the principle of consensus that
    existed in primitive society. Such an aim involves the articulation of
    a complex political and social order. The strains cannot be eliminated
    but can be continually adjusted. Political civilization is thus not
    primarily a matter of the goodwill of leadership or of ideal
    constitutions. It is, above all, a matter of time in custom.

    All the major troubles we have had in the last half century have been
    caused by people who have let politics become a mania. The politician
    should be a servant and should play a limited role. For what our
    political culture has stood for (as against the principles of total
    theorists and abstractionists) is the view of society as a developing
    and broadening of established liberties and responsibilities, and the
    belief, founded on experience, that in political and social matters,
    long-term predictions, however exciting and visionary, seldom work

    Democracy is almost invariably criticized by revolutionaries for the
    blemishes found in any real example, as compared with the grand
    abstraction of the mere word. Real politics is full of what it would
    be charitable to call imperfections. And there are those who, often
    without knowing it, become apologists and finally accomplices of the
    closing of society. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist (No.

    "A dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of
    zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding
    appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.
    History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more
    certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter."

    But with a civic culture it is more clearly a matter of a basis on
    which improvements can be made. For a civic society is a society in
    which the various elements can express themselves politically, in
    which an articulation exists between those elements at the political
    level: not a perfect social order, which is in any case unobtainable,
    but a society that hears, considers and reforms grievances. It is not
    necessarily democratic, but it contains the possibility of democracy.

    We cannot predict. The near future teems with urgent problems, with as
    yet irresoluble balances of force and thought. The law-and-liberty
    cultures may flourish, and as yet unpromising regions may over a
    period bring not merely the forms but the habits of consensuality to
    their populations. Let us hope.

    Everywhere we always find the human urges to preserve at least a
    measure of personal autonomy, on the one hand, and to form communal
    relationships, on the other. It is the latter that tends to get out of
    hand. To form a national or other such grouping without forfeiting
    liberties and without generating venom against other such
    groupings--such is the problem before the world. To cope with it, we
    need careful thinking, balanced understanding, open yet unservile

    And this is also why we still need to be careful about the signing of
    international treaties and the acceptance of international tribunals
    that appeal to a certain internationalist idealism, but one that needs
    to be carefully deployed. It is surely right to note that the
    acceptance of international obligations, and nowadays especially those
    affecting the policies, interests and traditional rights and powers of
    the states of established law and liberty, must be preceded by, at the
    least, negotiation that is careful, skeptical and unaffected by
    superficial generalities, however attractive at first sight.
    Permitting international bodies to intrude into the law-and-liberty
    countries also involves the institutionalization, on purely abstract
    grounds, of an as yet primitive apparat.

    A very important trouble with international arrangements of all types
    has also been that Western governments sign on to policies that have
    not been properly (or at all) argued or debated by their publics or
    legislatures. Thus these arrangements are a means of giving more power
    to their own executive branches and, of course, more power to the
    international bureaucracies and permanent staff.

    In particular, the UN, like the EU, approaches "human rights" on the
    basis of the general high-mindedness of the Continental Enlightenment.
    Declarations are made, agreements are reached. It is taken for granted
    that many states--about half the membership of the UN--will not in
    fact conform. And in the regions where liberty largely prevails, the
    signatories find their own countries denounced, often by their own
    citizens. The result is that under abstract human rights definitions,
    every state in the West that submits to treaties of the human rights
    sort lays itself open to aggressive litigation. As the late Raymond
    Aron, who spent so much of his life trying to educate the French
    intelligentsia, put it, "every known regime is blameworthy if one
    holds it to an abstract idea of equality over liberty."

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