Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th President of the United States on January 20th, 2017, on the basis of a majority in the Electoral College and despite a minority of about two million in the popular vote, raises a number of questions for democracy. That is not to question the legitimacy of the inauguration or the result, which seems to have been justified on the basis of the electoral system in place, but to ask whether the dangers of such a result are greater than might at first be supposed.
J.R. Lucas, who was once a fellow and tutor in philosophy at Merton College, Oxford, wrote a little book called Democracy and Participation that was published by Penguin in 1976. Those were the days of the ill-fated Callaghan government in the UK, and the Winter of Discontent. Edward Heath had taken the UK into the European Economic Community during his time as Prime Minister in January 1973, while the country was still coming to terms with poor economic performance, powerful unions, constant threats to the value of the pound, and such things as Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech (20th April, 1968).
What J.R.Lucas wrote in 1976 has peculiar relevance today.
Danger can also arise [for democracy] from a different quarter, not from the people agreeing too readily to do wrong but from their being too divided to agree on anything. If there is a division of opinion and the question is put to a vote, there is a measure of artifice in translating the voting figures into a decision. Some people will have voted against, and then find that they are deemed collectively to have voted in favour. If the matter is one about which they do not greatly care, they will not mind; and if, having been involved in the debate, they find the arguments on the winning side telling, although not decisive, they may well accept the decision with good grace; and if, though worsted on this issue, they have been successful in others, they may abide by the result. But if they are in a permanent minority, they may begin to question majority rule. I may be willing to go along with the majority of my fellow countrymen with whom I have some fellow-feeing, but if they consistently manifest in their devision-making a disregard for the canons of rationality and a readiness to flout the values I have espoused, I shall begin to wonder what lot or part I have with them. A permanent minority may become permanently alienated, and soon may seek to secede in geographical fact as well as emotional feeling.
J.R. Lucas, Democracy and Participation, Penguin, 1976, p.250
There is ample evidence that exactly this has happened both in the USA and in the Brexit vote in the UK last year, 2016. Of Brexit, someone said that it had been the most divisive thing to happen in British politics since the English Civil War in the 17th century, and it is hard to disagree.
A page before, Lucas makes a different set of observations:
Like all forms of government, democracy can be unfair. The fact that a decision has been approved by a majority does not mean that it is right or just. If a tyrant may be arbitrary, a mob may be capricious. The very circumstances of a democratic decision-making procedure militate against careful consideration and full attention to the facts. Mass meetings are easily stage-managed, and often it needs greater courage than anyone possesses to stand out against the movement of a mob.
op. cit., p.249
So much from this passage merits attention that it is hard to know where to begin, but the difficulty of the one standing against the mob has been a common refrain in the history of the world. Martin Buber characterized it brilliantly in his essay “The Question to the Single One”; Dietrich Bonhoeffer pondered it effectively and powerfully in Life Together. It is the human condition: to have the personal and moral courage (if there is a difference) to stand up for what one believes against the crowd when even to voice an opinion contrary to the prevailing view is to invite and risk censure and invite opprobrium. Social media have rendered the matter even easier with trolls and organized campaigns of online bullying and false news confounding and confusing the formation of rational, level-headed public opinion. One need hardly reference the brown-shirts, the Hitler Youth and Krystalnacht to reinforce the unfavourable historical parallels. When the judgement of the three highest Law Lords in the United Kingdom over the relationship between the Brexit referendum and parliament can provoke headlines in the national press describing them personally as “Enemies of the People” (Daily Mail, Friday, November 4th, 2016) out of a mistaken reading of the powers and entitlements conferred by a democratic majority, things are already well beyond the point where sane citizens will cry “Foul!” The response of the Brexit press to this judgement will go down as its most shameful day in history. And Gina Miller, who almost single-handedly raised the important constitutional question in the High Court, was subjected to indefensible levels of personal abuse and threat incompatible with life in a modern open society.
Lucas has something to say about this, too:
Once mob-rule is established, to protest the innocence of one man unjustly accused before the people’s courts is to expose oneself to the danger of being lynched. And although despots can be equally malevolent, they have fewer eyes and ears and, most of all, hearts. Stalin and his secret police seemed ubiquitous, but Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn could find some people they could confide in. … To be unpopular with a mob is to have every man’s hand against one. Every eye is hostile, every ear unsympathetic. And it is far harder to believe in oneself, when one is not merely a dissident from the regime, but is every man’s enemy. It is difficult to make a rational choice between horrors, but the French terror may have been even worse than the Russian purges just because it was an expression of the will of the people. Democracy, because it can come closer to pure consensual unanimity, is for that reason more dangerous.
op. cit., pp.249-50; my emphasis.
The matter is not completely covered, however, by the case where the One stands over against the mob in fear: the One can also remain silent or give false assent and approval simply by virtue of an unjustified readiness to defer to the Other. This, according to Jean-Yves Tadie, one of his biographers, was apparently a situation that obsessed Marcel Proust, from what he writes coming from the mouth of Jean in Jean Santeuil:
‘In our constant efforts to be sincere, we do not dare trust our own opinion and we align our views with those whose opinion is least favourable to us.’
Jean-Yves Tadie, citing the novel in Marcel Proust, Viking, 2000, p.305-6
Proust was writing about a time when France had been divided by two scurrilous legal cases: the Dreyfus affair (for a brief but balanced account see Piers Paul Read in The Daily Telegraph on 28th January, 2012) and the trial of Émil Zola (which started on 7 February, 1899). As Tadie puts it, “Total power is opposed to total innocence” in Jean Santeuil, Proust’s novel. According to Tadie, Proust and Anatole France (in the last two parts of L’Anneau d’amethyste) were the only authors to write novels during the Dreyfus period that dealt with the scandal (op. cit., pp.303-6).
Of course there is something that might be called “Democratic Fundamentalism” that not only advocates acceptance of the majority vote for the winning candidates in whatever version of democracy is deployed, which is the fundamental premise upon which a democratic system must operate, but in addition equates the result of that vote, contrary to what Lucas says above – “The fact that a decision has been approved by a majority does not mean that it is right or just.” – to what is right and just and, perhaps, in its most extreme form, true. According to a democratic fundamentalist (and there have been echoes of all these views in the post-Brexit rhetoric between Beleavers (sic) and Remoaners (sic), where the epithets themselves tell us all we need to know), a democratic majority automatically confers a moral entitlement to suppress, ignore and even ridicule, the views of the defeated protagonists. However slim the majority, the difference between the winning and losing vote is assumed by democratic fundamentalists automatically by some kind of universal law (I speak as a fool) to make the losing side wrong, and strips them of any right to continue to voice their opposition to the views that have prevailed lest they be dubbed “Re-Moaners”. Just as the likes of the contemptible Daily Mail were to declare those acting in good faith on behalf of the independent judiciary “Enemies of the People”, so they equate the result of a referendum with “the will of the people”.
It is worth reflecting on the actual numbers. Of 72.2% of the electorate who voted, 48.1% voted to remain in the EU and 51.9% to leave. The actual numbers are interesting and important: 16,141,241 (remain); 17,410,742 (leave), a majority of 1,269,501 of 33,551,983 who voted of the 46,500,001 registered to vote. 25,359 ballots were rejected. Source: The Electoral Commission. The population of the United Kingdom is 65,511,098 (actually not easy to find for 2017, so from Worldometers; the UK Office for National Statistics rather unhelpfully doesn’t have a figure later than 2015, which is 65,110,000, a figure issued either with great irony or cynicism on the date of the Brexit referendum, June 23rd, 2016). So 2.73% of the registered voters was the margin by which the decision to leave was taken; that represents 1.94% of the total population.
Now, it is perfectly possible to respect this majority decision and defend the mandate it confers upon the government to implement the withdrawal from the EU (indeed, we are required to do so, although we should not forget that the referendum had only advisory status and was not binding on the government) without being prepared to dismiss as wrong, morally unjustifiable or effectively silenced the views of those who either could not or did not vote, or voted to remain. Those who voted to leave only constituted 26.58% of the estimated total UK population. It is one thing to determine rules for who is entitled to vote and by what system the result is to be evaluated; it is entirely to be expected that membership of a constitutional democracy requires us to abide by the results of such democratic elections and referenda insofar as they are achieved lawfully; it is quite another to make that method a means of determining right, justice, morality and, at its most extreme, truth; and it is completely unacceptable for the victors in a democratic process to assume that their victory entitles them to determine what is right, just, moral and, at its most extreme, true.
The locus classicus for a discussion of democracy is, of course, Plato’s Republic Book VIII where Socrates is in discussion with Glaucon and, later, Adeimantus.
Socrates: Shall we follow our old plan, which we adopted with a view to clearness, of taking the State first and then proceeding to the individual, and begin with the government of honour? –I know of no name for such a government other than timocracy, or perhaps timarchy. We will compare with this the like character in the individual; and, after that, consider oligarchical man; and then again we will turn our attention to democracy and the democratical man; and lastly, we will go and view the city of tyranny, and once more take a look into the tyrant’s soul, and try to arrive at a satisfactory decision.
The sequence Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy then Tyranny has become an established pattern for political science: just as the excessive love and pursuit of wealth is the ruin of oligarchy, so the love and pursuit of freedom is the ruin of democracy.
When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.
And although it’s a bit longer than is usual or ideal for a quote, this follows of the tyrant whom democracy creates from its excess:
Socrates: But when he has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other, in order that the people may require a leader.
Glaucon: To be sure.
Socrates: Has he not also another object, which is that they may be impoverished by payment of taxes, and thus compelled to devote themselves to their daily wants and therefore less likely to conspire against him?
Socrates: And if any of them are suspected by him of having notions of freedom, and of resistance to his authority, he will have a good pretext for destroying them by placing them at the mercy of the enemy; and for all these reasons the tyrant must be always getting up a war.
Glaucon: He must.
Socrates: Now he begins to grow unpopular.
Glaucon: A necessary result.
Socrates: Then some of those who joined in setting him up, and who are in power, speak their minds to him and to one another, and the more courageous of them cast in his teeth what is being done.
Glaucon: Yes, that may be expected.
Socrates: And the tyrant, if he means to rule, must get rid of them; he cannot stop while he has a friend or an enemy who is good for anything.
Glaucon: He cannot.
Socrates: And therefore he must look about him and see who is valiant, who is high-minded, who is wise, who is wealthy; happy man, he is the enemy of them all, and must seek occasion against them whether he will or no, until he has made a purgation of the State.
Glaucon: Yes, and a rare purgation.
Socrates: Yes, not the sort of purgation which the physicians make of the body; for they take away the worse and leave the better part, but he does the reverse. If he is to rule, I suppose that he cannot help himself. What a blessed alternative: to be compelled to dwell only with the many bad, and to be by them hated, or not to live at all!
As so often remarked, we can happily do without Glaucon here, but this is how Plato wrote it. Were it not for the fact that one seriously doubts whether Trump has ever read anything, let alone Plato, one might think that he had been taking lessons. And the greatest of all fears is that, left utterly alone in his paranoia, he will have nothing to lose however excessive his actions or destructive his power. So there really is a danger, and it is a danger we should all heed, that the more he is mocked the more dangerous he will become. But Plato anticipated us:
Glaucon: Yes, that is the alternative.
Socrates: And the more detestable his actions are to the citizens the more satellites and the greater devotion in them will he require?
The wise and courageous men who could best rescue and redeem the tyrant, the ones with the insight to question his decisions and his course of action, are the very people he will most readily destroy; and the more the very people who brought him to power in their insurgency against the excesses of democracy will protest, the greater will be the force he uses to bring them to heel.
Socrates then changes the metaphor to one familiar to his Greek audience: that of the son who kills his father (a reference both to Zeus and Oedipus). Seeing the democratic state as the father that gives rise to the tyrant as the son, Socrates plays upon the simile of patricide, to devastating effect. “The parent” here is the people; “the son” is the tyrant.
Glaucon: By heaven, he said, then the parent will discover what a monster he has been fostering in his bosom; and, when he wants to drive him out, he will find that he is weak and his son strong.
Socrates: Why, you do not mean to say that the tyrant will use violence? What! beat his father if he opposes him?
Glaucon: Yes, he will, having first disarmed him.
Socrates: Then he is a parricide, and a cruel guardian of an aged parent; and this is real tyranny, about which there can be no longer a mistake: as the saying is, the people who would escape the smoke which is the slavery of free men, have fallen into the fire which is the tyranny of slaves. Thus liberty, getting out of all order and reason, passes into the harshest and bitterest form of slavery.
This bitter inversion involves the realization that tyrants, as the children of a failed democracy, when once their father, the state, realizes their infamy, will not stop at destroying what has given them birth and, like Zeus and Oedipus, killing their father. Freedom has no greater enemy that one who knows how to manipulate the mob. Forget learning, forget intelligence, forget morality, forget scruple: one and only one thing is to be feared: the capacity to turn the frustration, resentment and indignation of the mob against the very intelligentsia upon whom their progress and their fortunes rest.
One and only one thing is to be feared: the capacity to turn the mob against the intelligentsia upon whom their progress and their fortune rests.
Plato was not a democrat in the modern sense, if at all, and neither one supposes was Socrates. If Plato or Socrates were not “timocrats” who believed in rule by the wise aristocracy, they were certainly not political oligarchs, democrats or tyrants. Everyone knows that Plato, however tongue-in-cheek, advocated rule by “Philosopher Kings” who might best be described as benevolent, wise despots whose minds were attuned to eternal truths and whose decisions were governed by ubiquitous wisdom.
Karl Popper included Plato in his list of the enemies of the open society; his fellow-members were Hegel and Marx. Others, notably Michael Polanyi, distrusted the notion that society could be “Open”, preferring instead to advocate a society that is “Free”. Like Plato, Polanyi understands social change in terms of inversion: the excesses of oligarchy give rise to democracy for Plato; the moral and political perfectionisms of society give rise to their inversions in totalitarianism for Polanyi.
The transitions and inversions to which Socrates draws attention are the result of an unfettered freedom: freedom conceived as “freedom from” constraint rather than freedom conceived as “freedom for” something for which it is worth accepting some constraints. Socrates and Polanyi see a notion of freedom that entails only “freedom from” as dissolute and dissipative: it is as a liquid jelly poured upon a table without a mould; all that can happen is that it runs, unrestrained, upon the floor. Polanyi saw Popper’s “open” society in such terms, and the unrestrained idealism of liberalism similarly. Heeding Socrates’ warning, he understands that if the mob are given unfettered freedom, it can only lead to tyranny. Repeatedly, this political inversion has proved only too true: a perfectionism of freedom (which is therefore not perfection at all) leads to the destruction of all freedom. (This would be my summary critique of the values that seemingly underlie the philosophy of the UWC and the IB: that they espouse an unstructured and purposeless notion of liberalism and freedom that cannot but implode or dissipate.)
So we need something else, something better; we need a restrained, focused, purposeful conception of freedom under which both the mob and the intelligentsia will accept some limitations to their freedom in order to enable society to achieve, and in support and defence of, a higher purpose.
It is not insignificant that Socrates and Plato both believed in a system of government in which educated, rich, élite [white] men were supreme, lesser men on the second tier, especially soldiers, women second- or third-class citizens, and slaves nobodies. What is significant about this is not the social hierarchy, but that they passionately believed in something. Specifically, they believed in the world order as they experienced it, and they seldom if ever questioned it. One may perfectly well suppose that their conception of “freedom” was, by our standards, pathetically and even offensively limited and partisan; we may equally well suppose that they had little or no conception of counter-cultural trends; we may reasonably suppose that they would have understood something quite different from the modern connotations of the word “tolerance” (as, indeed, should we). What we should not suppose, although we may of course ask the question, is that they doubted their own civilization. And we do. All the time. And a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.
The problem of liberalism can be encapsulated in a single observation:
Before I defend freedom of speech I must have an answer to the question of how I will respond to those who will use that freedom to try to silence me.
Lucas in the quotation above observes that to speak up against the mob requires levels of courage that most of us do not possess. Neither do most of us possess the levels of endurance required to suffer the ignominies and torture of those who would abuse their freedom to torment and destroy us. But this is just to say that none of us is Christ-like, that none of us is (whether or not we want to be) Christian in any substantive sense of the word, that none of us embraces or is capable of embracing the notion that true belief, like true forgiveness, embraces even and especially those who ridicule and scorn it. For Nietzsche this was a measure of the pathetic weakness of the Christ and Christianity: that it was a religion for the weak that exonerated them from responsibility to stand up and become “men”, even super-men. But Nietzsche never moved beyond the point where he mistook weakness for strength, and strength for weakness.
And this is really the issue: our failed liberal democracy stands upon a mistaken understanding of freedom bolstered by an even more mistaken understanding of the relationship between strength and weakness. Its fundamental problem is that it refuses to embrace ambiguity, denies or ignores personal responsibility, and so cedes the field to extremists of one sort of another. Moreover, for all that it parades itself as tolerant and open-minded, it routinely excoriates those who do not share its liberal values, especially those who dare to suggest that some elements of self-restraint in the common good might be required by civil society. Radical liberalism does not rejoice in this no-man’s-land but in knowing where it stands: it does not pretend to believe in unrestricted tolerance; it does not believe in unrestricted freedom, whether of action or speech; it does believe in its own civilization, but it does not believe that civilization cannot be amended and improved by constructive discussion, argument and dissent; it accepts that it is open to the charge of imperialism, but it is courageous enough to bear that slur in the name of a greater purpose; it is ready to suffer for what it believes, and it is ready to take life only for a cause for which it is also ready to surrender it. In particular, it is prepared to take a stand knowing that where it chooses to stand may one day come to seem mistaken or wrong-headed, but it knows that we have to take some stand somewhere because it is impossible to oppose the forces of darkness by standing nowhere. Consequently, radical liberalism will not claim to stand upon the truth, but only upon whatever ground it believes to constitute the best we can do right now.
And on just this basis liberalism, especially in its more intellectual forms, also espouses a further fatal principle: that its intellectual, social and most important of all moral superiority stands upon ground that lies and is established and justified somewhere else; that what it advocates is established somehow and somewhere by reason, nature, the universe, or some putative God. Whereas liberalism likes to think of the tyrant as standing only upon self-centred whim, cruelty, ruthlessness and corruption, and the sceptic upon nihilism and destructiveness, and therefore both to be on different grounds baseless and unsubstantiated, liberalism likes to think of itself otherwise: it likes to think of itself as somehow given, or based upon universally-binding and established principles of rationality, right-thinking, justice and truth that “any right-thinking person” would endorse and adopt. And it thinks and believes that these principles are not of its own making, but lie somewhere out there to be found by those who only search sufficiently diligently to find them. This is its error: that it looks elsewhere for its grounding and its strength. And almost as if it believed in an omnipotent deity who would protect and fight to preserve this givenness, it is therefore lulled into a false sense of security when it comes to defending its principles against those who would destroy them. In this Nietzsche was right: there is nowhere else that we can stand; there is nowhere else that we can reasonably look for our strength but to our own conviction. The best we can do right now is what I and you and people who agree with us think that to be. There is nowhere else upon which this conviction can stand; there never has been; there never will be. There are no “sky-hooks” as Popper liked to call them, upon which we can hang our convictions; there are no unshakeable foundations upon which we can build them; there is no divine protector who will ensure that our chosen suppposedly-given goodness will survive and prosper. There is only what we and people like us believe, what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared, if necessary, to die for. To pretend that our strength lies elsewhere is to place our faith in nothing; to believe that there is a truth that will force itself upon us without an effort of will is to believe a folly; to believe that “the question to the single one” (Buber) can or will or should be answered by another is to place our shoulder against the wheel of the Great Lie.
“The Great Lie”? And what is that? It is the claim that our salvation lies elsewhere, and other than in ourselves; it is the belief that some one or some thing will save, or should save, or even has saved us; it is the claim that, the belief in, the reference to that which is other than ourselves that will provide the necessary power, force, eternally inexorable influence, to save us. It is, however many ways we gloss it, the belief that someone, somewhere has either the desire or the obligation to rescue us from whatever mess we have found our way into. The Great Lie is that someone, somewhere, will, can, and should save us. There is no such other; we are on our own. If we are fortunate, we may have confidantes such as Lucas ascribes to Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, but we should beware even of them, for under threat of the rack or fire or worse even they will in all probability desert us. And we cannot reproach them for that; in their place, would we not do the same? We are alone. We were born alone; we will die alone; and the notion that somewhere in between we will find fellow-spirits is something to rejoice over, while being aware that their loyalty may be an illusion.
Arguments against belief in God have almost always cited lack of evidence for God’s existence as if the matter were important when construed as a matter of knowledge, belief and truth. But the damaging effects of belief in God have never been confined exclusively to matters of truth; they have, rather, taken their toll in the positive and negative aspects of our propensity to defer both for strength and in weakness to a power beyond ourselves. And whether there is a God of any kind, or not, is not important for that reason. Whether there is a god is of importance only and exclusively to the extent that it determines our capacity to motivate, trust and believe in ourselves as the only means of our own salvation. God is in such respects a mere instrument of the Great Lie, for belief in his agency prevents or distracts us from believing that the only means of our salvation is ourselves.
But if there is indeed a Great Lie, is there not also a compensating and perhaps even overwhelming Great Truth? And if there is, then what would it be?