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Second Meditation on Democracy [written Monday, August 7, 2007] REPUBLISHED

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https _s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com_736x_ee_59_33_ee593300e425c02784549e0228c025e1In the begin­ning years of this blog, I pub­lished a series of arti­cles called “Med­i­ta­tions on Democ­racy and Dic­ta­tor­ship” which are still reg­u­larly read today, and have had some influ­ence. They still elicit inquiries from remote cor­ners of the globe. They are now buried in the back pages of the blog, so I’m mov­ing them up the chrono­log­i­cal counter so they can have another round of vis­i­bil­ity, espe­cially (I hope) with younger read­ers. I am re-posting them in their orig­i­nal sequence over part of 2018. Some ref­er­ences in these “med­i­ta­tions” will date them to 2007–2008, when they were writ­ten. But I will leave them un-retouched, though I may occa­sion­ally append some ret­ro­spec­tive notes. Mostly, they deal with abstract issues that do not need updating.


Þingvel­lir, the out­door site of the medieval Ice­landic elected par­lia­ment. Þingvel­lir, the out­door site of the medieval Ice­landic elected parliament.

“Civ­i­liza­tion is the process in which one grad­u­ally increases the num­ber of peo­ple included in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreases those labeled ‘you’ or ‘them’ until that cat­e­gory has no one left in it.” — Howard Win­ters, an Amer­i­can archae­ol­o­gist who stud­ied ancient set­tle­ment and trade pat­terns [quoted by Anne-Marie Cantwell in Howard Dal­ton Win­ters: In Memo­riam]

“Voice or no voice, the peo­ple can always be brought to the bid­ding of the lead­ers. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the paci­fists for lack of patri­o­tism and expos­ing the coun­try to dan­ger. It works the same in any coun­try.” — Her­mann Wil­helm Göring, sec­ond in com­mand to Adolf Hitler.

What most tellingly dis­tin­guishes demo­c­ra­tic from non-democratic thought is its respect for human beings. By this, I don’t mean respect for some neb­u­lous abstrac­tion called “human­ity” or “the peo­ple”, which is all too eas­ily trans­formed into a mys­ti­cal col­lec­tivism. It’s a respect for real-life indi­vid­ual human beings, who live, fall in love, have chil­dren, and strug­gle to find secu­rity and hap­pi­ness. In demo­c­ra­tic thought, the well­be­ing of indi­vid­ual human beings is the pur­pose and mea­sure of polit­i­cal choices. Well­be­ing, to the demo­c­rat, is defined first in terms of what mat­ters most to con­scious beings — lib­erty, self-respect, dig­nity, con­trol over their own lives. The phys­i­cal neces­si­ties of life, such as food and shel­ter, are mean­ing­less to human beings except within the con­text of those val­ues. We are not cattle.

It is this respect for human beings as human beings, and not merely as domes­tic ani­mals, that dis­tin­guishes demo­c­ra­tic thought from all other forms of polit­i­cal thought. The pur­pose of non-democratic thought is to secure power, glory, and wealth for some par­tic­u­lar peo­ple — invari­ably a very small num­ber of them — over the remain­der. In order to accom­plish this end, those who seek such power con­coct fraud­u­lent intel­lec­tual struc­tures. Their aim is to con­vince human beings to sac­ri­fice them­selves, to aban­doned their rights, or to vic­tim­ize their neigh­bours. Some super­nat­ural or col­lec­tive entity is pre­sented as the pur­pose and ben­e­fi­ciary of polit­i­cal choice. Whether it be nation, race, reli­gion, party, or what­ever, the sur­vival of some col­lec­tive entity is pre­sumed to be the mea­sure of all worth. Human beings are pre­sented, not as valu­able in them­selves, but as exist­ing only to serve and per­pet­u­ate the cho­sen col­lec­tive entity.

Demo­c­ra­tic ideas are not vari­ants of, rel­a­tives of, or exten­sions of any form of non-democratic ideas. They are not part of any “spec­trum”. They do not con­sti­tute an “ide­ol­ogy”, com­pet­ing with other, essen­tially equiv­a­lent “ide­olo­gies”. The gulf between demo­c­ra­tic thought and non-democratic thought is a chasm of absolute and irrec­on­cil­able oppo­si­tion. The two ideas — that human beings have value, on the one hand, or that they are merely objects to be sac­ri­ficed to a col­lec­tiv­ity, on the the other — exist in two sep­a­rate con­cep­tual uni­verses. The first exists in a moral uni­verse, and the other does not.

I must empha­size that I don’t believe in the sin­cer­ity of non-democratic thought. Those who are called upon to sac­ri­fice their lives and lib­erty would not do so if they dis­cov­ered that the only ben­e­fi­ciary was some other indi­vid­ual, not close or dear to them, who lived and pros­pered par­a­sit­i­cally from their self-sacrifice. They must either be con­vinced that human beings are ranked in real value, and that their self-sacrifice reflects their own innately lesser value than their ben­e­fi­cia­ries; or they must be dis­tracted from see­ing the self-serving inter­est of the ben­e­fi­cia­ries by imag­in­ing that some more impor­tant, non-human thing is being served; or they must have their ordi­nary human needs for love, friend­ship and fam­ily crushed, and a neu­rotic emo­tional trans­fer­ence to a “leader” sub­sti­tuted for them. For any of these phe­nom­ena to come into effect, the ben­e­fi­cia­ries can­not be uncon­scious of the fraud­u­lent nature of their claims. It requires a con­stant refresh­ment of lies and manip­u­la­tion, switches in tac­tics and tech­niques, and sub­sti­tu­tions of one “aim” for another to main­tain the spell. In all my stud­ies of tyrants and non-democratic regimes, I have never once seen any cred­i­ble evi­dence that the cen­tral lead­er­ship of any such regime actu­ally believed in the truth of their sup­posed “ide­ol­ogy”. One of the chief plea­sures of dom­i­na­tion, from the point of view of the dom­i­nant, is the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing that the “suck­ers” believe absur­di­ties which they would never fall for themselves.

To under­stand this process, we must not look to some dubi­ous notion of human nature, but to the more con­cretely vis­i­ble phe­nom­e­non of human char­ac­ter. Human nature, what­ever it might be, is that which all human beings hold psy­cho­log­i­cally in com­mon. Peo­ple have argued fruit­lessly for mil­len­nia about whether peo­ple are “essen­tially” self­ish, or benev­o­lent, or vio­lent, or peace­ful, or sub­mis­sive, or aggres­sive. What­ever they might “essen­tially” be, our expe­ri­ence tells us that human beings vary in their char­ac­ter, that they do not all fit a sin­gle tem­plate. We have invented words like “cruel”, “kind”, “self­ish”, “pompous”, “cred­u­lous”, “gen­tle”, or “sen­si­tive” because we encounter dif­fer­ent kinds of behav­iour in human beings. Within a cer­tain range, we are pre­pared to deal with these vari­a­tions, and to rec­og­nize that our own char­ac­ter is among them.

How­ever, cer­tain spe­cific human char­ac­ters present prob­lems to human communities.

The most obvi­ous prob­lem is cre­ated by the vio­lent per­son. Every­one has the poten­tial to be vio­lent, but it’s clear that some peo­ple come to it more eas­ily than oth­ers. Every com­mu­nity has its bul­lies. On a small scale, these can be held in check by the threat of revenge, and this, in fact, is how most local com­mu­ni­ties have dealt with the prob­lem. How­ever, the solu­tion has never proven very sat­is­fac­tory. Exam­i­na­tions of “non-state” and pre­lit­er­ate soci­eties, time and time again, have revealed death rates from war and mur­der aver­ag­ing .5 per capita per annum [see Kee­ley, Lawrence H., War Before Civ­i­liza­tion, Oxford UP 1996.]. The typ­i­cal pre­lit­er­ate soci­ety stud­ied by anthro­pol­o­gists cus­tom­ar­ily sanc­tions a series of “nest­ing boxes” of rela­tion­ships defined by who is oblig­ated to take revenge on who for thefts, assaults, or insults. A fist­fight between two cousins over a coconut can rapidly be trans­formed into gen­er­a­tions of bru­tal war­fare, as fam­ily, then clan, then col­lat­eral clans, tribes, and con­fed­er­a­tions of tribes are each called upon to exact revenge for pre­vi­ous acts of revenge. In response to this dan­ger, most such com­mu­ni­ties cre­ate con­sular bod­ies, usu­ally of widely respected peo­ple, vil­lage elders, or heads of fam­i­lies, which attempt to dampen these cycles of vengeance by per­sua­sion and diplo­macy. Demo­c­ra­tic tech­niques, such as we have devel­oped them, have evolved from these con­sular bod­ies, which can be found in every region of the world, every era, and every exten­sive cul­tural and reli­gious tra­di­tion. [see Muhlberger, Steven R. & Paine, Phil = Democracy’s Place in World His­tory. Jour­nal of World His­tory 4:1 1993]. Their effec­tive­ness in lim­it­ing vengeance is hard to deter­mine, since we can’t com­pile sta­tis­tics of vio­lence that might have hap­pened, but did not. How­ever, the death rates per capita speak for them­selves. Cul­tures in which state orga­ni­za­tion does not exist, or in which it is only super­fi­cial, exhibit death rates by war and homi­cide far exceed­ing the most vio­lent cities in the United States, and often exceed­ing the mor­tal­ity rates in mod­ern civil wars. This con­tra­dicts a widely-held roman­tic fan­tasy of pri­mor­dial non-violent soci­eties in har­mony. This is not to say that the con­sular tech­niques devel­oped in such soci­eties are unim­por­tant. They are early attempts to imple­ment proto-democratic ideas, and such demo­c­ra­tic prac­tice as we have today owes its exis­tence to these fal­ter­ing first steps.

Lucy Mair’s com­par­a­tive study of sev­eral small soci­eties in East Africa [Mair, Lucy Philip. Prim­i­tive Gov­ern­ment: A Study of Tra­di­tional Polit­i­cal Sys­tems in East­ern Africa. 1977] rang­ing from extremely decen­tral­ized clan soci­eties to full-fledged monar­chi­cal states, shows that infor­mal con­sular bod­ies are rea­son­ably good at inhibit­ing vio­lence at the fam­ily and clan level, but pro­gres­sively less effec­tive as the con­flict involves larger or more dis­tant par­ties. What is more, the process comes to a halt when the “eth­nic limit” of the group is reached. Con­sular bod­ies make no attempt to limit vio­lence out­side of the largest group that the soci­ety defines as “we”. State­less or “tribal” soci­eties, usu­ally exist in a per­pet­ual state of war­fare with their neigh­bours. Raid­ing neigh­bour­ing eth­nic groups for cat­tle, graz­ing land, access to water, or sim­ply to mas­sacre and take cap­tives, is usu­ally regarded in such soci­eties as a demon­stra­tion of val­our. The sup­posed provo­ca­tions are usu­ally spu­ri­ous, or cyn­i­cally con­trived. Such war­fare is com­monly very bru­tal, empha­siz­ing tor­ture and rape to inflict the max­i­mum humil­i­a­tion on the enemy. Arche­ol­ogy has unearthed vast num­bers of for­ti­fi­ca­tions and vil­lages placed in loca­tions that were obvi­ously cho­sen for ease of defense, all in times and places where it is assumed that no large-scale states or king­doms existed. Recent attempts to claim that tribal soci­eties engaged in war­fare only because they were sub­ject to eco­nomic pres­sures from more tech­no­log­i­cally advanced soci­eties are not con­vinc­ing. The pat­tern of per­pet­ual inter-tribal war­fare, through­out his­tory, is evident.

This may give us a clue to why vio­lent peo­ple are sur­pris­ingly tol­er­ated in human groups. Where there is a dis­tinct tribal “we” which is engaged in per­pet­ual vio­lent rivalry with sev­eral “thems”, it is handy to have peo­ple within your “we” who have an unusu­ally vio­lent tem­pera­ment. They may be a nui­sance at home, but they can deliver a use­ful amount of fierce­ness in war. Their psy­chol­ogy may even be mim­ic­ked and styl­ized into mil­i­tary cults, so that young men of more placid tem­pera­ment can be trained into effec­tive mil­i­tary forces.

Another human type that strains the egal­i­tar­ian ethos in human com­mu­ni­ties is the psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity. Some peo­ple take plea­sure in con­trol­ling other human beings, and are very sen­si­tive to the body lan­guage, vocal into­na­tions, and other sub­con­scious tricks that trig­ger an unthink­ing obe­di­ence in oth­ers. If you don’t have this par­tic­u­lar skill, it’s hard for you to imag­ine how it works . Some peo­ple are sim­ply able to tell other peo­ple what to do, and obtain auto­matic com­pli­ance. If they embark on some project, they can expect to have other peo­ple doing the work for them, not just because they are offered a quid-pro-quo, but because they are infected with an irra­tional desire to please that per­son. They fall into an unthink­ing assump­tion that their own pri­or­i­ties are less impor­tant. Even when skep­ti­cal of their aims, or irked by the arro­gance implied by their man­ner, peo­ple tend to assume that some great tal­ent, intel­li­gence, or secret knowl­edge must underly the con­fi­dence that the dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity radi­ates. At the very least, peo­ple imag­ine that the dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity is gath­er­ing the fruit of intense and self-disciplined labour. These assump­tions, how­ever, do not stand up to exam­i­na­tion. Adolf Hitler, for exam­ple, was able to get mil­lions of peo­ple to obey him, even when the obe­di­ence was obvi­ously destruc­tive to their inter­ests. Why? He was not par­tic­u­larly intel­li­gent, and other than perus­ing a hand­ful of pop­u­lar crank books, was not par­tic­u­larly knowl­edge­able about any­thing. Even at the height of world con­quest, he spent very lit­tle time work­ing. He spent most of his time sleep­ing, hav­ing leisurely meals, and watch­ing movies. He read almost none of the reports that came to him, and rarely inquired into the details of his admin­is­tra­tion. On the few occa­sions where he chanced to issue detailed and direct orders, they usu­ally made no sense or caused con­sid­er­able dam­age to his own aims. What he did do, unfail­ingly, was to com­mand peo­ple to solve prob­lems for him. They went out and did so. Gen­er­als were told to win bat­tles, finance min­is­ters told to finance them. He him­self had no idea of how to do such things, but he did know that if he gave any order, it would be obeyed.

Where aris­toc­ra­cies are firmly entrenched, a great deal of effort is made to train aris­to­cratic chil­dren to employ the psy­cho­log­i­cal dom­i­nance tricks, and to block their use by non-aristocrats. As a defen­sive mea­sure, estab­lished aris­toc­ra­cies make a spe­cial point of inflict­ing pun­ish­ment for “pre­sump­tion” or “inso­lence”. These pejo­ra­tive terms are attached to any use of dom­i­nant speech or body lan­guage out­side of the approved cir­cle. Despite the efforts of hered­i­tary aris­toc­ra­cies to train suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tions in dom­i­na­tion skills, it does not appear to be some­thing reli­ably inher­ited. A tal­ent for it con­stantly appears among any group of human beings.

Like the vio­lent tem­pera­ment, the dom­i­nant tem­pera­ment is tol­er­ated in most soci­eties much more than we would expect. Most dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties do not find them­selves in a posi­tion, like Adolf Hitler or Mao Zedong, of hav­ing an entire nation make them­selves avail­able for tak­ing orders. The aver­age dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity must oper­ate in a sit­u­a­tion of lim­ited resources and pos­si­bil­i­ties, and must use their psy­cho­log­i­cal tricks within some con­text where quid-pro-quo exchanges con­sti­tute the pri­mary activ­i­ties. Large orga­ni­za­tions pro­duce things that the soci­ety as a whole is happy to have. There’s a ten­dency for peo­ple to assume that what­ever an orga­ni­za­tion accom­plishes is the direct result of a dom­i­nant personality’s per­sonal “dynamism” or charisma. Cli­matic, demo­graphic and eco­nomic fac­tors may ensure that, for exam­ple, there is a great demand for air con­di­tion­ers, and money avail­able to pay for it. Any orga­ni­za­tion that pro­duces air con­di­tion­ers to meet that demand will pros­per. But if a charis­matic “leader” is in charge, part of his dom­i­nance tech­nique is to con­vince other peo­ple that what­ever suc­cess hap­pens is the direct result of his dom­i­nant status.

In some cases, this is demon­stra­bly true. How­ever, few peo­ple con­sider that the same ends can usu­ally be achieved with­out the par­tic­i­pa­tion of dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties. Equally pro­duc­tive orga­ni­za­tions can be put together, and man­aged skill­fully, entirely by quid-pro-quo rela­tion­ships between peo­ple, with­out the inter­ven­tion of any psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity strut­ting around bark­ing orders, or ema­nat­ing an aura of author­ity. I’ve worked in such an orga­ni­za­tion, which was quite suc­cess­ful as an eco­nomic enter­prise, and char­ac­ter­ized by a pleas­ant atmos­phere and high morale.

Pol­i­tics, of course, has been treated by many jour­nal­ists and his­to­ri­ans as if it were noth­ing but a chron­i­cle of the suc­cesses of var­i­ous dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties, and there is an unend­ing fas­ci­na­tion with the the careers of tyrants. Their abil­ity to “accom­plish” things (usu­ally death and destruc­tion) with a pow­er­ful stare or a com­mand­ing voice, is not inter­preted as the sad result of human credulity and emo­tional weak­ness, but as the man­i­fes­ta­tion of “genius”. But Mozart did not get other peo­ple to com­pose bril­liant music for him by bark­ing orders at them, or know­ing how to stand in an impres­sive way. He sat down at a desk and cre­ated the music with his mind. The music’s value speaks for itself. He was not a dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity. Noth­ing about true cre­ativ­ity has any­thing to do with psy­cho­log­i­cal dom­i­nance.

Def­er­ence to dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties will prob­a­bly exist in any soci­ety. How­ever, a civ­i­lized soci­ety will encour­age peo­ple to have suf­fi­cient self-esteem, fore­warn­ing, and self-discipline to ignore auto­matic obe­di­ence to any­one who learns how to arch an eye­brow or speak in a low, even voice.

There’s yet another par­tic­u­lar kind of human char­ac­ter that has a pro­found influ­ence on soci­ety, while at the same time remains almost invis­i­ble and uniden­ti­fied. Psy­chol­o­gists have coined terms like “sociopath” and “Anti­so­cial Per­son­al­ity Dis­or­der” to describe the small num­ber among us who ruth­lessly and effi­ciently exploit oth­ers, with­out any restraint from con­science. We under­stand the process when we encounter it on a small, person-to-person level. All of us have known the jerk with a trail of abused, but incom­pre­hen­si­bly loyal part­ners. All of us have been sub­jected to the con­vinc­ing con-artist who glibly attempted to part us from a hard-earned pay­check. We have sighed when we heard of a naïve friend drawn into a pyra­mid scheme, or fallen in with a dreary reli­gious cult lead by a charis­matic guru. Occa­sion­ally, we hear of some extreme case of egre­gious ruth­less­ness, such as some­one keep­ing an elderly rel­a­tive locked in an attic while steal­ing their pen­sion checks.

More com­monly, we suf­fer the depre­da­tions of small-scale social schemers. These peo­ple move through a group of friends or co-workers, tak­ing plea­sure in manip­u­lat­ing them, plant­ing strate­gic lies, set­ting one friend against another, engag­ing in sub­tle char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion, and gen­er­ally emerg­ing pros­per­ous, priv­i­leged and unscathed while the more moral peo­ple around them suf­fer. Any rea­son­ably large group of peo­ple is likely to include at least one such person.

What few peo­ple learn, or face up to when it is demon­strated to them, is that the halls of busi­ness and state power are shaped and dri­ven by many such peo­ple. While they are only a small per­cent­age of us as a whole, their par­tic­u­lar psy­cho­log­i­cal char­ac­ter makes them extremely suc­cess­ful. The higher up the chain of author­ity one goes, the more of this type can be found. We may even­tu­ally grasp what they are doing to us, but there is usu­ally no way of undo­ing the dam­age they inflict, of expos­ing them, or of bring­ing them to jus­tice. The meth­ods they use have always worked, and rarely fail, unless in com­pe­ti­tion with oth­ers using the same tech­niques more efficiently.

A per­son may, alter­na­tively, rise in pres­tige and wealth through the use of tal­ent within a frame­work of hon­ourable behav­iour. In fact, it is absolutely essen­tial that some peo­ple do so, or noth­ing would func­tion at all. Schemers and manip­u­la­tors expend all their energy in destroy­ing other peo­ple, with lit­tle time over to accom­plish use­ful tasks. Large orga­ni­za­tions, which have usu­ally come into being to effect some prac­ti­cal pur­pose, can be expected to have a pro­duc­tive core of com­pe­tent peo­ple doing their work well, expect­ing to be judged by the value of their work, and seek­ing noth­ing more than recog­ni­tion and remu­ner­a­tion appro­pri­ate to their con­tri­bu­tion. Weav­ing among them, dodg­ing light-footed from one betrayal or sub­ver­sion to another, are the schemers and manip­u­la­tors. These usu­ally wind up at the top of the organization.

Some­times, manip­u­la­tors are so effec­tive that they can actu­ally cre­ate an orga­ni­za­tion whose only pur­pose is to advance their own ambi­tions, and is com­prised entirely of manip­u­la­tors, sub­sidiary manip­u­la­tors, enforcers, hangers-on, and cadres of cult drones who do the mun­dane work. Rather than being a use­ful orga­ni­za­tion that has been cor­rupted and bent to the pur­poses of the manip­u­la­tor, it is an act of manip­u­la­tion and fraud embod­ied in an orga­ni­za­tion. Pyra­mid schemes, most ide­o­log­i­cal move­ments, and many reli­gious orga­ni­za­tions fall into this cat­e­gory. The Church of Sci­en­tol­ogy is a per­fect example.

Once again, we should look to dic­ta­tor­ships to see this per­son­al­ity type at its most active. Dic­ta­tors are usu­ally both dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties, capa­ble of elic­it­ing auto­matic obe­di­ence through sub­con­scious cues, and socio­pathic per­son­al­i­ties, who will cheer­fully employ any decep­tion, betray any trust, or destroy any inno­cent per­son to fur­ther their ends. In a dic­ta­tor­ship, the socio­pathic per­son­al­ity tends to be the most suc­cess­ful. Dom­i­nance skills are more widely dis­trib­uted in the pop­u­la­tion. A ris­ing dom­i­nant is bound to encounter, on his trip up the lad­der, a num­ber of peo­ple who are just as good at giv­ing orders. On the upper rungs up the lad­der, you can expect com­plete obliv­i­ous­ness to human suf­fer­ing. Prob­a­bly the clear­est, most undi­luted exam­ple in his­tory of a pure socio­pathic per­son­al­ity would be Mao Zedong, who not only mur­dered more peo­ple and cre­ated more suf­fer­ing than any­one in human his­tory, but who lit­er­ally would have killed every human being on Earth if it had been within his power. Mao lit­er­ally believe that he him­self, and he alone, was the only thing that mat­tered in the entire universe.

The vio­lence and suf­fer­ing of the world was not cre­ated by some essen­tial “human nature”, but it has been shaped to a great degree by the sym­bi­otic inter­ac­tion of vio­lent, psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant, and socio­pathic per­son­al­i­ties. These per­son­al­ity types, even put together, con­sti­tute no more than a small minor­ity of the human com­mu­nity. But the more rea­son­able major­ity has been very slow to develop the tech­niques of con­tain­ment, dif­fu­sion, and resis­tance, nec­es­sary to pre­vent them from form­ing elites and aris­toc­ra­cies. Human his­tory has been dom­i­nated by orga­ni­za­tions that have been cre­ated by vio­lent, dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties, and sociopaths to serve the pur­poses of these minori­ties. The sur­vival of par­tic­u­lar human beings within the frame­work of these orga­ni­za­tions has usu­ally been a mat­ter of pure luck. For thou­sands of years, ordi­nary human beings have strug­gled to sur­vive, while suc­cess­ful elites have ruled over them, expro­pri­ated their pos­ses­sions, and expended their lives in wars.

But the story of the human race is not just a cat­a­log of vic­to­ries for the strong and ruth­less. There are dra­matic dif­fer­ences between dif­fer­ent human com­mu­ni­ties in the degree to which they are under the thumb of aris­toc­ra­cies. As well as the hor­ri­fy­ing record of war, slav­ery, and human tor­ment, there has also been a slow, painful strug­gle to cre­ate alter­na­tive insti­tu­tions that respect human life and dignity.

For this strug­gle to suc­ceed, it is essen­tial that we learn to expand the con­cept of “we”. In demo­c­ra­tic the­ory, this is called “inclu­sive­ness”. The grad­ual expan­sion of inclu­sive­ness in human insti­tu­tions is the tale that the demo­c­ra­tic his­to­rian gets the most plea­sure from telling. Strug­gles over the exten­sion or con­trac­tion of the fran­chise are the drama in the demo­c­ra­tic nar­ra­tive. We know that peo­ple are capa­ble of treat­ing each other as equals, because in every soci­ety, some peo­ple per­ceive each other as equals. We can doc­u­ment the intel­lec­tual and emo­tional steps by which peo­ple learn to see larger and larger groups of peo­ple as their equals, and to treat them so. Each step that is taken suc­cess­fully gives us a tem­plate for the next. At some point, among most nor­mal human beings, the blind­ing rev­e­la­tion that “’we” means “every­body” takes place. When it is grasped emo­tion­ally, as well as intel­lec­tu­ally, peo­ple begin to suc­cess­fully resist the depre­da­tions of the vio­lent, the psy­cho­log­i­cally dom­i­nant, and the ruth­less schemers. They grasp that there is no such thing as aris­toc­racy, only peo­ple who claim aris­toc­racy. They learn that they should obey moral rea­son, not the voices and ges­tures of men. They learn to for­mu­late laws that apply equally and fairly to every­body. They learn to con­struct polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions that respect human rights, and eco­nomic insti­tu­tions that pro­duce goods and ser­vices with­out exploitation.

Now of course, we have no place on Earth where this job is even close to com­plete. But despite the bru­tal hor­rors that have char­ac­ter­ized the human story, objec­tive obser­va­tion shows that there has been a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in the world. A num­ber of places have been able to secure a state of affairs that is some­times called “civil soci­ety”. This term has had a vari­ety of con­tra­dic­tory usages in the past, and I’m not entirely com­fort­able with it’s use. But I think that most progressively-minded peo­ple in the world are now using it to mean a soci­ety that has achieved a cer­tain degree of depend­able rea­son­able­ness, and a soci­ety that has a mul­ti­plic­ity of inde­pen­dent insti­tu­tions that can pre­vent the sub­mis­sion of the soci­ety to out­right tyranny. In such a “civil soci­ety”, the prin­ci­ple insti­tu­tions are intended for log­i­cal, prac­ti­cal, and desir­able pur­poses. They are vul­ner­a­ble to being infil­trated and cor­rupted by socio­pathic per­son­al­i­ties, but they were not cre­ated by them. The pop­u­la­tion that par­tic­i­pates in them is more inclu­sive and egal­i­tar­ian in its atti­tudes than most human soci­eties have been in the past. These soci­eties have polit­i­cal struc­tures that are capa­ble of solv­ing major prob­lems by peace­ful means, if their cit­i­zens put their mind to it.

The achieve­ment of civil soci­eties in this sense has been a very slow and painful strug­gle, and at the moment, only a minor­ity of human beings are lucky enough to live in them. The major­ity still live under out­right tyranny, or in soci­eties in which civil and demo­c­ra­tic insti­tu­tions are a sham, or too cor­rupted to be effec­tive. But the minor­ity of func­tion­ing civil soci­eties demon­strate to human beings every­where that improved con­di­tions are pos­si­ble. The rel­a­tive suc­cess of such soci­eties by mate­r­ial mea­sures has at least exposed one of the loud­est lies of total­i­tar­ian ide­olo­gies: the claim that tyranny is more “effi­cient” than democ­racy. This notion was once so widely believed that a major­ity of intel­lec­tu­als, even in demo­c­ra­tic coun­tries, sub­scribed to it. Now even the most iso­lated peas­ant knows that it’s a crock.

The exist­ing civil soci­eties should be cham­pi­oned, not as utopias or sta­tic mod­els, but as encour­ag­ing signs on the way to a real civ­i­liza­tion. Their cit­i­zens may not have achieved civ­i­liza­tion yet, but they have tools at their dis­posal with which they have a chance to do so.

How­ever, greater intel­lec­tual clar­ity is nec­es­sary for us to pro­ceed in that direc­tion. At present, we are crip­pled by an intel­lec­tual frame­work that was designed by var­i­ous aris­to­cratic elites of the past to enable their pre­da­tions. Within that frame­work, the con­cept of “democ­racy” is thought of as an “ide­ol­ogy”. I would like to pro­pose that democ­racy is not an ide­ol­ogy, and that it is a pro­found mis­un­der­stand­ing to think of it as one.

Democ­racy is one of the tools employed by nor­mal — that is to say, not socio­pathic, dom­i­nant, or vio­lent — peo­ple, to cre­ate a civil soci­ety, and limit the power and scope of the sociopaths, mega­lo­ma­ni­acs, and brutes. That’s why it is char­ac­ter­ized by attempts to cre­ate “checks and bal­ances”, divi­sions of power, gov­ern­ment by con­sent and rep­re­sen­ta­tion, mech­a­nisms of over­sight and recall, tem­po­rary offices, and sub­mis­sion of lead­ers to law. Democ­racy as a process is still crude. Almost every aspect of it cries out for redesign and refine­ment. And this pro­ce­dural aspect is only one of the ele­ments nec­es­sary for the cre­ation of a decent civ­i­liza­tion. Con­nected with it are a plethora of asso­ci­ated cus­toms and atti­tudes that must work in con­junc­tion with the polit­i­cal ele­ments. All of these things together con­sti­tute the frame­work of ideas that I mean by the term “demo­c­ra­tic thought”.

But these ideas are not lodged in any holy text, revealed from super­nat­ural sources, or issued as procla­ma­tions by a guru or a super­hu­man leader. They are cre­ated by the free inter­change of opin­ion, and the accu­mu­la­tion of expe­ri­ence. The expe­ri­ence we have is of being exploited, cheated, bul­lied, mur­dered, and cowed with fear, then slowly devis­ing safe­guards against these assaults, test­ing them by expe­ri­ence, and fit­ting them together. The process has been slow and incre­men­tal. It is only now that we are start­ing to dis­cern larger, abstract pat­terns in it, and it is only now that we are in a posi­tion to start dis­cussing the entire issue coherently.

Ide­ol­ogy is a dif­fer­ent type of tool. An ide­ol­ogy is cre­ated by socio­pathic and dom­i­nant per­son­al­i­ties for their par­tic­u­lar, self­ish pur­poses. It is an intel­lec­tual resource for prac­tic­ing fraud. It jus­ti­fies crimes, explains betray­als and rever­sals, and impresses ini­ti­ates. The more baro­quely com­plex it is, the more use­ful it is to its pro­mot­ers. An ide­ol­ogy like Marx­ism or Con­ser­vatism, for exam­ple, con­tains such a polyphony of absur­di­ties that it can glibly jus­tify any action, appear to explain any event, and appeal to any human weak­ness or cor­rup­tion. This is why such “isms” con­tinue to be pro­moted by those who wish to com­mit crimes on a grand scale. How­ever, their par­tic­u­lar “philo­soph­i­cal” con­tent is not very impor­tant. Those who use such an ide­ol­ogy are not bound by its con­tent, and will just as hap­pily use any other gob­bledy­gook to accom­plish the same ends. Peo­ple like the cur­rent gang of brutes who have taken over the Amer­i­can exec­u­tive, for exam­ple, are the psy­cho­log­i­cal and moral equiv­a­lent of Lenin’s entourage. They find it con­ve­nient to employ dif­fer­ent buzz­words and different-sounding slo­gans, but they are intent on com­mit­ting the same crimes. It’s a mis­take to think that the ide­ol­ogy is what cre­ates the crime. The socio­pathic and dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity cre­ates the crime — the ide­ol­ogy is merely a tool to that end.

This is why demo­c­ra­tic thought must never be dis­cussed as if it was an “ide­ol­ogy”. It is as dif­fer­ent con­cep­tu­ally from ide­ol­ogy as sci­ence and med­i­cine are from witch­craft. It exists for an entirely dif­fer­ent pur­pose, and it is founded in a fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent world view.

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