Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What about democracy?


I should have commented on the November elections right away. Or probably it wasn’t necessary. The few who read this blog should know well that I don’t like Obama, not just a little, but a lot. As always, though, expressing opinions, likes and dislikes, is less important than arguing about “things themselves”.
At times like these I wonder about the destiny of democracy. In the US and out of it there is talk about the decline of America. I rather ask: is there in the US an apt understanding of America, and, with America, of democracy? In short: what about democracy? In the US, I don’t know whether they can still be called of America, as in Europe?
As far as America is concerned, my friend the LD wrote a beautiful book entitled The soul of a nation, for which I am pressing him to find a publisher to make known his enquiry, historical and philosophical, into her formative idea. As far as her connection with democracy is concerned, well, who doesn’t know the brilliant Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville? Amazing how he was able to draw, just from a journey through the young United States in the thirties of the Nineteenth Century, such essential an insight into the kind of society that was taking shape in them!
Mind me. I said that “society was taking shape” in the united ex British colonies, meaning that a certain ordering of human affairs found in the American constitution, wisely empowered by the Constitution, the institutional setting that allowed it to flourish. I didn’t say that the state newly formed by the ex colonies shaped society.
Let’s call, as it has been called, this ordering of human affairs “democracy”.
It had already started taking shape before the independence in the colonial period, over against the modern European experience of the absolute monarchies, by which it was the states that tended to reshape society. The same tendency, though, was not overthrown but confirmed and strengthened by the French Revolution. Again on this, de Tocqueville makes an interesting reading, with his less famous but no less important The ancient regime and the revolution.
Also to the ordering of society from  on high, on the absolutist model confirmed by the French Revolution, it has been given the name of “democracy”.
It is legitimate then to ask: which is democracy, the one or the other?
A widespread opinion identifies democracy with the possibility to hold elections – or at least so it looks from the pressing in this direction exercised by the US on countries where elections weren’t previously held. What is happening for example in Egypt shows how illusory that opinion is: an elected president took the first chance he found to make his power absolute. But it’s not just this. To be elected implies the capability to obtain consent, and to stay in power doesn’t require suspension of further elections, it is enough to control the organization of consent. Moreover, the idea of democracy thus expressed is that consent by itself is all that is needed: nothing it is said in this way about the consent obtained, whether it is for good or for bad. To maintain consent by itself as good, qualifications are added on the way it is obtained that little have to do with elections.
I’m not saying that elections are not important. They are quite so, mostly for the understanding of man they show, when by elections we mean universal suffrage: one man (or woman), one vote. This implies that sense of equality in which de Tocqueville rightly sees the main mark of democracy.
Let’s not trust our democratic sensitivity, which makes the affirmation of men’s equality almost a truism. It is not. Men are different, starting from the most patent difference of sex and age, to all other kind of differences, physical and moral, ethnic and cultural. If we still hold their equality, this needs to be accounted for by saying in what it rests, what is it that equalizes them.
By the answer to these questions come the different conceptions of democracy I spoke about, still at play in the partisan search for consensus in our countries. We could call them, following what I said, the first “American” and the second “European”, if we only remember that they are embattled both in the USA, quite strongly, and, to a lesser degree, in Europe.
*****
I was wandering how to carry forth my argument, when I run into an interview with Harvey Mansfield, and this interview prompted me to look into his home site. Professor emeritus of Government and teacher of political philosophy at Harvard University, he ironically declares himself to be the “conservative mascot”  in that home of liberalism, the token dissenting voice necessary to show that liberals tolerate criticism. Now, liberalism is the European way to democracy, which threatens the American way – if threat it is. That such is the case, it is precisely the point to argue.
Let’s hear Mansfield’s words, from the review of a book on de Tocqueville entitled Soft despotism:
Soft despotism (despotisme doux), according to him, is a new despotism found only in democracy. It is not based on making the people tremble with fear, as Montesquieu said of the usual despot, but on providing benefits and offering good will to the people as individuals.
"It does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them," says Tocqueville. It even teaches you how to improve your life. But the price of the benefits is to hinder and discourage all political or associational activity in the people, leaving democracy in the condition of a mass of dissociated individuals governed by an "immense being" known today as Big Government. This new democratic despotism, rather than any direct enemy of democracy, is the greatest danger in our democratic age.
At danger, with democracy, is liberty, that freedom with which we are used to associate it. Now, freedom is as hard to define as democracy. But I don’t need to enter into all the disputes surrounding it. It is enough to make explicit what is implicit in the dispute concerning “Big Government” or “Small Government”. Classical Nineteenth Century liberalism advocated the latter, Twentieth Century liberalism advocates in the US the first. But they share a common assumption: that the State is superiorem non ricognoscens, doesn’t recognize anything above, or for that matter below, itself.
This means that for liberalism there is no divine or natural law ordering human relations in society; or, in other words, that there is no order immanent to personal relations prior to their ordering by the State. The famous separation of powers: legislative, executive and judiciary, however important, doesn’t change the simple fact that the governing body of society, made of the three corresponding branches, claims for itself the absolute power of making laws. Granted this assumption, it can be disputed about big or small government.
Let’s hear again Mansfield on de Tocqueville:  
[…] he presents the idea of democratic liberty in an account of the facts of American democracy, above all in the discussion of the New England township with which he begins his presentation of American government. Here one sees the natural, spontaneous association of free men to address a need before their eyes, such as laying a road, that cannot be satisfied by one individual alone. He goes on to describe and praise the complex, artificial, theoretical Constitution that presides over the more spontaneous "civil society" of American democracy. But he never mentions the Declaration whose fundamental principles inspired the Constitution.
[…] Tocqueville appears to have had an aversion to abstract principles and to have considered them a menace to democratic liberty. In a democracy, abstract principles, including the Declaration's statement that "all men are created equal," will be democratic ones and will accelerate the democratic revolution rather than guide it. Democratic citizens, lacking any sense of hierarchy either in society or in their own souls, are likely to reject demanding ideals and to prefer immediate, material enjoyments that are easy, obvious, and palpable.
A government led by an abstract idea of men’s equality to be implemented in society has an intrinsically despotic bent. Be it of a soft despotism. Then a tendency toward conformity in the minimum common denominator of desires is  guaranteed by the State, definer, as supreme legislator, of life and death.
What was it then the worth, if this were to be the final outcome, of having left absolutist Europe?
HP

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