Democracy, The Equivocal Standard
Just what is democracy? If you were to define it, the definition would inevitably fail because there is too much behind the word. With a word used so often, and in some very prominent contexts, it is worth taking some time to reconsider what the word signifies. Begin by saying it:
— touch the syllables on your tongue and “taste” them, paying attention to your body as your mind connects the word with meaning, for mind and body are both the same person. Notice the your own aesthetic reaction — a gut feeling we all get from such a charged word, not just the sounds or the look of the word itself, but from our compounded associations that give the word shades of meaning by connotation.
Maybe the word inspires a lift of pride that swells the chest. Maybe it produces a certain cynicism, a halted breath reserved for such clichés as apple pie and baseball. Outside of America, especially where democracy has never been in practice, the word probably suggests America, and the physical reaction will follow whatever is reserved for that association. For a very few, the reaction is clinical — the reaction to a technical term of political science like bicameral or disestablishmentarian. Still others might react with nausea, or lightness in the stomach or chest, or a recoiling of the spine from their own associations.
The word democracy — for some it is synonymous with idealism, uttered in the same breath with liberty and justice and other divine incarnations of Principle. For others it is a political justification founded on the force of that idealism. For still others, though, democracy holds uncertain value. Perhaps it is even unimportant to some, although the places where this is the case are quite rare. It is difficult in most places on earth, among most people, to escape the necessity for anyone who would have public legitimacy either to pay homage to it, or to reject it as a threatening incursion. Rarely can democracy be ignored. In some way, it has penetrated thought virtually everywhere.
The word democracy — possibly more than any other one word identified with a complex set of concepts about our multifarious human world, this word is glossed over. Almost all of us assume we know what it means to us, and never give it a second thought to why it means what it means to us, or to what it means to others, or to what it means in practice.
So often the mind is supposed to slide past “democracy” — to fail to consider it well or entirely take it for granted as a known quantity, and ultimately grant a fuzzy, warm legitimacy to those who wave the word about as though it were solidly understood. It is quite impossible in this day and age to escape this rather mindless homage and the leverage thereby applied on a semiconscious level, whether in political speeches or in product advertisements on days around a national holiday.
So, we should know what it is, and what it means to us.
In fact I suggest this is not at all a question with a quick or easy answer, and an ongoing aim of this series will be to explore it. But first of all, it is important to recognize democracy in at least two senses: as a cultural emphasis, and as a political system which has evolved through those cultural trends.
The cultural aspects are exceedingly complex and interwoven, of course. But we can draw out from them a few differentiable threads. One is the principle that any person regardless of their birthright might be important and worthy and might achieve, and should be allowed to do so — a trend which became something of an antidote for the aristocracy by birth which kept down in lower stations even some of the most exceptional people. Thus “democratization” often means nothing more than widespread access to a thing previously hard to access, even just goods or services previously too expensive for most. Coming along with this democracy-as-openness is a new willingness to pay attention to the lives of the “common” man in writing histories and creating art, and all other respects in which, previously, the lowborn would have been excluded out of hand as uninteresting. This too is called “democratization” sometimes. From the standpoint of what has advanced individual life, I will not take issue with democracy in these senses of the word.
But, not unconnected to this, there has emerged a glorification of the truly commonplace as though it were equal to the exceptional. Extending beyond the purer idea of a “democratic” end to artificial barriers, this implies an overthrow or reversal of traditional aristocratic values, deliberate in many cases, vengefully in most of those, whether the vengeance is hot-tempered and violent, or cool and slyly resentful. In the practice of “democratic” politics this has led to economic redistribution by taking from the prosperous and giving some to the “common” poor. This can be seen as a parallel to socialistic and communistic cultural sympathies elsewhere, in social movements and arts of all kinds. As an example: what after all was the great difference between the focus of democratically-inspired artistic glorification of “the common citizen” in the west, and that of the arts of socialist realism pursued in the Soviet Union according to supposedly antithetical ideology — that is to say art for “the average Joe” compared to art approved by Joe Stalin — besides the latter having official endorsement and sponsorship? (This distinction actually dissolved during the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt wielded the presidency.) That insistent valuation of the common, average, or mediocre is the same sort of cultural drive prominent behind the democracy of the French Revolution; the slogan did not stop with liberty but demanded equality as well, by guillotine if need be, and by the burning of great art by mobs.
The “cultural” democracy has then been a mixed bag indeed — on one hand, a quest for freedom absolving the world of the worst legacies of an aristocratic or royal heritage, on the other hand a rebellion against the very idea of the exceptional and the great.
Following these cultural sentiments came the establishment of political institutions, the second meaning for the word “democracy” we must understand. We can only know “political” democracy by understanding cultural “democracy” as being composed of interwoven but different threads with very distinct motivations behind them at the individual level, ranging from a yearning for openness, opportunity, and freedom, all the way to jealousy and spite.
The political system of democracy consists of the essential principle of majority rule, expressed both in the election to determine officials who will hold invested political power, and in voting directly on laws and political resolutions. Although these have been endorsed as a result of all the sorts of cultural democracy discussed above and as a means for fulfilling any or all of them, it is worth noting that throughout the history of democracy those who predominantly sought individual freedom through democracy have most often considered political decision-making by the majority a necessary means for freedom, whereas those who have represented a vilification of the exceptional or an endorsement of the common over the exceptional have reveled in the pursuit of majority power through elections and direct voting. The difference is not to be found in the means found by both, but in the motivations underneath, and in the degree to which political power and government of any kind is trusted. There is quite a difference between democracy as “the worst form of government, except for all of the others” and romanticized visions of democracy as though the process is a worthy or worthwhile one in itself.
If political democracy does not serve as the best means for freedom, it must and should be surpassed, according to the real aims of the great cultural pushes for openness, opportunity, and freedom which produced it. And indeed, now this precisely describes the situation at hand. Democracy in a political sense is not a worthy and substantive ideal which has merely been corrupted behind political machinations. Rather, the practice of democracy masks and retards what is worthy, and the theory is without substance.
The major point made in The Promethean Manifesto about democracy as a political system, and I believe the major point which should be made, is that democracy in practice is largely a justification for political power. It is the latest in a series of smokescreens taking various forms of enshrined mandates, from loyalty to tribal or clan hierarchy, to the pharaoh’s descendance from the gods, to the divine right of kings according to the apostle Paul, to the voting booth today, fronts behind which the more important affairs of politics can be conducted — exertion of control and dominance, maneuvering for factional advantage, power-brokering, exploitation and oppression. We may grant some credit to those who advance each stage for the dissolution of the convention which came before, and nothing less is deserved by the early proponents of democracy for overturning the rigid, stratified classes of aristocracy and monarchy.
But democracy remains one of many species of government, which in the greater scope of possibilities is not so much different from other types as it is the same, however much we are presently conditioned to regard democracy as a really fundamental source of progress. As in all other governmental social systems, which is to say centrally and ultimately forcibly ruled systems, those administering democracy use and justify a conceptual political power which can otherwise be supported only by naked force. That in some form is the basic pattern of government. Specifically, in the case of democracy, the idea of granting choice to the individual is subverted. The appeal of this apparent choice justifies a rule which otherwise would be unacceptable. But as The Promethean Manifesto (2003 edition) put it, “Perversely, in the electoral process a vote “against” a candidate actually amounts to a vote for him if he is elected; by voting, one confirms the process, and implies a pledge to accept the authority of whoever is elected by majority.” Participation in democracy becomes an endorsement of more than a particular government official. Participation also serves to endorse the legitimacy of whatever officials are elected and their actions, and the legitimacy of whatever unelected bureaucrats operate under the nominal control of those elected officials (and in turn their actions), and the legitimacy of government itself.
Despite the similarities, it is worth understanding the differences between democratic systems and others to learn what is unique about democracy as a sociopolitical system, even as we must remain willing to face the potentially harsh conclusion of that lesson: that difference, that democratic uniqueness may not deserve idealization, as in fact I will argue.
Past Alternatives versus Democracy:
Autocracy and Aristocracy
Synopsis: “The best form of government except for all the others” … really? This second Critique of Democracy actually explores that question so rarely asked by comparing democracy to two governmental alternatives, autocracy and aristocracy, in an educational thought experiment. Includes sober discussion of elitism.
“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 all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
— Sir Winston Churchill, Hansard [transcripts of parliament], November 11, 1947
A famous supposed saying of Churchill’s circulates in many discussions of democracy, really a pithy modification of the actual recorded quotation above, a remark less pithy and less famous. His endorsement of democracy, as reserved as any we should expect from a politician in a democratic government, ably expresses perhaps the best and surely one of the most common of the practical arguments for democracy. Surely enough, any basic critical evaluation of democracy might seem to become almost pointless except as pessimistic curiosity, unless preferable alternatives might replace democracy. But how could it satisfy any intellectual honesty to accept this mere dismissal of pointed debate? And for my part how could it satisfy the conscience of my own philosophical aims — always higher, towards expressing potential?
The Problem of Change
I would first object that the view in question has a tendency to ignore the necessity of change to address the basic problem of change. That is, as G.K. Chesterton noted in Orthodoxy,
“If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before.”
Chesterton knows the conservation of conservatism fails to preserve the tangible virtues which once inspired it, such as freedom of action, or for that matter the depth of culture feted by conservatives. I have often observed the sad habit of ‘conservatives’ tending to continue their work for some time after the fact, having failed to realize their justification for “fighting the good fight” is long gone and in effect they now fight for something else. The certain circumstances allowing past progress in such and such a form remain in the past, and further accumulation, much less eternity of that old progress on those same old terms is impossible. In particular, the cultural-historical human moment which made some relative progress in human freedom possible to achieve within a political system, should never be confused with the timeless, abstract, inhuman theoretical system itself.
Concerning democracy and America, a harsh truth is the founding fathers of America are long dead and their whole circumstantial world, with its ideological opportunity to seize some freedom and defend it for a while in a democracy , is quite dead with them. Their achievement might need to be redoubled in a different way, in another system entirely, if it is not to be lost in the same system. Unless sincerely reconsidered, rebuilt, and replaced if need be, democracy itself is no more immune to the problem of change than anything else.
The brash teleology advertised by democratic political scientists such as Fukuyama, who proclaimed in 1989 “the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” would not be so confused if compared with a longer historical perspective that considered other models and had to take account of the continual problem of change. Democracies become tyrannical, left alone, and effectively if not overtly become other forms of government, as Aristotelian observation had considered since the end of the age of the ancient Greek polities (city-states), including among them the first Western democracies such as Athens. As early as 1377, Ibn Khaldûn convincingly argued that not only does every particular dynasty or state experience a terminal lifespan, but all political civilization endures a cyclical pattern of birth, corruption, decay, and collapse.  Of course Fukuyama might be correct in an unintended sense, if indeed the last dominant form of governmental society happens to be democracy, and a preferable alternative paradigm ascends instead. Regardless, the denial of change as an inevitability, especially concerning either ideology or inherently unstable political societies, seems ungrounded and certainly presentist.
The Problem of Acclimation to Faults
I would secondly object to Churchill that acceptance of a thoroughly problematic thing as a necessary thing tends toward a rather unsettling pattern. Very many people accustom themselves to its problems, and in time ignore the problems, and finally regard the original premise they knew to be flawed, to be just as worthy as anything else thought noble. Standards fall and real evidence comes and goes ignored when theorists have built such a box inside which to think, a given which should not be a given. First democracy is an undesirable but necessary expedient, then it is no longer deserving of close attention because a priori there can be no greater innovation, then democracy itself is a positive good and receives a great deal of congratulatory attention but little scrutiny, and even less skepticism. In debate about democracy in America for example, tracing a broad sweep from James Madison, through the last skepticism with de Tocqueville, through Francis Fukuyama today, that general pattern of acceptance defines the mainstream appreciation of democracy over the centuries, although it is also, I think, indicative of a universal problem in societies: today’s accepted ‘evil’ becoming tomorrow’s ‘good’ as a moralist might like to put it, although morality itself must be considered part of the problem. For if democracy must be accepted it cannot be bad, it must be good, or so any pragmatic binary moral thought process will inevitably conclude. We know quite a bit about the English parallel which overlaps the American paradigm: tough questioning over the philosophical essentials maybe peaked before the struggles between royalists and roundheads (parliamentarians), and effectively end long before Bentham, or Mill, who really concerns himself with details of implementation (representation). (The later Churchill is unusually frank for his time, if anything.) Doubtless, democratic principles followed similar paths in the discourse of “realistic” Greeks and then Romans as well.
Such evolutions of attitude coincide with the gradual transition from managing and controlling democracy to actively seeking out the fullest expression of democracy, and therefore fully discovering its defects. Thus in the histories of Athens, Rome, England, and America, and every other example one cares to trace, who can convincingly argue that we do not see evidence of an increasing problem of mob rule — the conjunct tyranny, spoiled apathy, or casual whim of the majority as manipulated by information control and the demagogue’s old tricks?
A Thought Experiment in Governmental Alternatives
But both the above objections become minor points worthy only of sober reflection to the democratic (lower case) pundit, merely things to keep in mind, unless preferable alternatives do exist, have existed, or more relevantly can exist in practice, even if they never have before. So, before asking any further tough questions of democracy I will consider governmental alternatives. In the end I do choose and argue for another option entirely, an option more optimistic about individual human potential and more optimistic about societal desirability (at least in the long run) than any possibility Churchill with his cynical talk of “sin and woe” would have accepted.  Yet supposing, for the moment, only options in government as Churchill did, let us take up the implicit challenge and ask ourselves the mostly unexamined question: are there governmental alternatives preferable to democracy? and either way, let us try to learn something about democracy.
What alternative might critics of democracy suggest? Despite the self-amusement of many with idle criticism of this or that facet of democracy, today there remain so few concerted critics of democracy itself we certainly must strain our ears for any alternatives we actually hear anyone propose and advocate. We might more profitably look for alternatives among the dirty names democrats (as in ‘advocates of democracy’) call mostly-hypothetical detractors, or perhaps the dirty names democrats call one another to illustrate how undemocratic, and therefore how reprehensible their targets are.
Democracy’s scarce critics can expect to be labeled advocates of various horrendous forms of autocracy, dictatorship, despotism, totalitarianism, etc. — sometimes even with justification. For our purposes here these systems following the rulership of one, or occasionally the junta of a few men, can be summed up under the name autocracy.  Advocates of democracy know they are bound to win arguments against the unilateral government of autocracy and so they willfully engage in it. One finds seemingly endless numbers of tracts contrasting the virtues of democracy with the vices of communism for example, portraying democracy and autocracy as the only choices. But one can find far fewer arguments exhorting democracy over something else entirely. Certainly, there are many modern examples of autocratic systems which have reared their heads up in front of democracy or as results of democracy, such as communist states most obviously, or other sorts of secular dictatorships; on that basis we might surmise that the fear of a robust autocratic challenge to democracy is not misplaced. 
From all this one might think that autocracy was in some real competition with democracy, either for popularity as the world’s dominant form of government, or as the best, most desirable choice among governments. But the goals of an autocratic regime are usually direct enough in the first place, or apparent enough at least, and despite the origination of some autocracies in democratic institutions and elections, their aims are entirely different from the avowed goals of democracy. Autocracy is by definition far more blatantly authoritarian; it exists to establish a stranglehold of control for the sake of both stability and long-term exploitation (or occasionally control for the sake of short-term exploitation, as most often occurs when a regime is sponsored by a foreign power rather than internally generated; see footnote 5 which includes some modern examples). Where enough people desire this stability or accept it for one reason or another, autocracy may arise as the result of dispositions. Or more likely, it may be imposed on people as a result of foreign invasion or interference.  But it never offers substantive competition with democracy overall.
Democracy is established where people desire freedom, for it is the political system which promises freedom and choice. Autocracy does not even promise freedom, at least not seriously, and certainly does not deliver it. There is no reason why, then, we should consider autocracy any potential challenge to democracy’s title as the best choice among governments. Most of all this is because we may by now take it as a Promethean given that individual freedom to think and act has a great deal to do with what ‘best’ means, among societies.
We can observe that autocracies of any form generally adopt at least some of the trappings and procedures associated with democratic republics in a bid for second-hand legitimacy, even if their elections are fully predetermined, their legislatures one-party, or their presidents dictators. This shows how extraordinarily far democracy has come as the world’s predominant form of government: almost without exception, even the officers of democracy’s more entrenched apparent alternatives pretend service and representation of “the people” too.
And as far as popularity, in fact autocratic governments could only challenge democracy’s worldwide preeminence if very many more people openly preferred unilateral control at the discretion of the ruler to individual freedom of some degree and kind. Democracy seems best especially because it represents freedom, thus only if democracy appeared more tyrannical than dictatorships would autocracy likely seem preferable in the eyes of the very many who desire freedom. Probably it is no coincidence that democracy has usually been deposed by people convinced that political choice is less important than something immediate such as survival, sustenance, or security, and they have been convinced democracy cannot provide it, as occurred in Russia early in the 20th century, or have seen democracy fail to provide freedom, as has occurred in countries on the receiving end of foreign policies inflicted against their freedom by democracies. Essentially, people must be disappointed by democracy by example or participation. Otherwise democracy represents freedom in modern times, so generally its advocates can bring down the few real critics of democracy on the implication that they are advocates of autocracy, by one name or another, and therefore critics of freedom.
Yet there remains another means for dismissal of critics too, which should be of more interest to the honest analyst of democracy.
The Displaced Alternative
All across the world today, hopes for freedom hallow democracy. The last system to compete with democracy for this place was aristocratic or royal rule, in other words official hierarchic rule by political elite. 
When democracy was a new experiment, the rule of royalty and nobles was accepted around the world and in its most desirable forms, still signified freedom to many more subjects than the citizens to whom democracy meant freedom. That concept of rule has since been defeated soundly in “public opinion” because for their various personal reasons, most people prefer the enticing idea of “self-rule,” whether this means in practical terms that they enjoy the idea of controlling their own affairs, or crave control over others’ affairs. But the debate, while effectively concluded, is yet rehashed as propaganda. As far as openly elitist government is still discussed, democratic rule is frequently presented as the one decent alternative to indecent elitist rule, aristocracy and monarchy having been recast wholly as oppressive autocracy and primitive feudalism. Through the idle musings of pundit democrats, democracy now stays in the fight with aristocracy, shadowboxing, as if rule by birth rather than election could still get up and fight again. Perhaps it is relevant at this point to remind ourselves that such a non-opponent can occasionally be useful as scapegoat or straw man.  The many proponents of democracy have been eager to mark democracy’s few critics advocates of aristocracy, monarchy, or the dreaded “elitism,” and therefore either antiquated or authoritarian. This maneuver offers a means of easy dismissal, for aristocracy belongs to the past.
Just as democracy has had a cultural aspect besides its political aspect , in part intrinsic to the political, and in part incidental to it, so has aristocracy. Since aristocracy is all but gone as a political system (and I for one have no intention of arguing for its return) the most salient point of discussing aristocracy now is to illuminate the cultural value or lack thereof associated with democracy. In particular, what might aristocracy have had to offer culturally — in terms of philosophical basis and corresponding shared valuation of ideas — that democracy does not offer?  And secondarily, politically speaking, the practicalities of the way aristocracy and — after the eventual evolution of aristocracy into monarchy, the increasing dominance of sovereigns over fellow noblemen  — the way monarchy functioned might both allow us to better reflect on democracy’s political functions today.
So let us look closer at political elitism and aristocracy.
The key thing to recognize about “elitism” is what it means practically: how it functions and how it does not, how it makes sense and how it does not. Elitism is not at all simple or self-evident to modern people, to judge from the confusion surrounding it. To understand it, a retrospection is instrumental.
In history, when certain people seize opportunity in an opportune occasion such as a power vacuum, and establish themselves as political elites, classes or more often castes which by right of supposed overall superiority hold permanent political power over others, those people have first generally possessed some very real and practical superiority of a particular variety.  The importance of that specific superiority in a place and time becomes confused with overall superiority, a sort of philosophical overreach from a limited precedent. In most instances, the specific superiority has involved either warrior prowess, strategy, tactics or some other martial skill, or else charisma, leadership, or some other organizational skill, or some combination of martial or organizational skills  — obvious enough advantages for power-seekers, as historically these abilities provide opportunities for both seizing power through domination, and for being granted power for the sake of protection. Both these patterns, domination and concession, certainly figured into the selection of proto-aristocrats in the early Middle Ages of Europe’s history. Economic prowess must also have been another such ‘ennobling factor’ of elites. Some able farmers, hunters, herders, or other sort of profitable landowners (or nomadic land-stewards) might understandably accrue a proto-retinue from among loyal workers, and develop social standing from a prospering reputation; we know the local lords of medieval Scandinavia would begin as successful, important landowners long before some of their descendants made themselves famous going a-viking. Finally persuasion or eloquence or other linguistic talents, artistic brilliance, or any unusual creative talents might conceivably play a part as an ennobling factor. Even a single ennobling factor might in the fullness of time raise up whole classes as rulers above others.
In other instances, especially the elevation of a small group or one person to levels above others, the source may instead have been a wider array of appreciated or necessary talents (the difficulty of forcing subjugation, or peacefully proving superiority, being that much greater for smaller numbers). In particular, few founders of whole dynasties could have capitalized on narrowly martial skills to establish themselves above all competitors within their native land.  Even though military talent may represent an array of different abilities, and certainly requires more than one isolatable capacity such as muscular strength or spatial reckoning, the typical span of those abilities would still not suffice for every need of social power consolidation; they would rarely be diverse enough. A more impressive, well-rounded sort of person would tend to be needed for that. We can therefore see that the more impressive the accomplishment of uniting greater numbers and wider areas in a social group, the more the potential for a psychological leap from seeing elite capabilities, to acknowledging overall superiority of person — the leap forming political elitism — would also tend to increase. Finally one might understand how an ancient man who could gather and direct a tribe or settlement in a locality, much less all the people in a sizable land to form a country in his name, might really seem larger than life and higher than human. Eventually people in such a society might without thinking call its government “aristocracy,” meaning rule of the best.
From Overestimated Elitism to the Errors of Aristocracy
In aristocracy’s derivation we can trace the evolution of compounded theoretical error originating in a sensible appraisal.
Apparently, the development of political elitism is largely the story of one or a few real aptitudes taken too far. Warrior prowess for example does not necessarily suggest anything about charismatic leadership, temperance, wisdom, creative thinking, a balance between practicality and vision, persuasion, diplomacy, financial management, respect for others, or any of the host of other things that the members of political elites could easily be required to possess by virtue of their place. In such a system of political elitism, one or a small number of skills or talents is substituted for the wider set of what is demanded or needed, a practice often inefficient, unwieldy, or dangerous, and sometimes really disastrous, for others and often for the elites as well. Very rare is the instance in which such a proto-aristocrat satisfies virtually all of what is demanded and needed of his character in his position. Yet this problem comes just within the life of the first generation among such a class, and it is a comparatively minor problem, since at least these proto-aristocrats do possess what is probably, at the time, an important ability or set of them.
This is probably not true of their descendents. When political elitism is preserved in the second generation, it becomes a hereditary aristocracy, the most common type. Aristocrats owe their position to a very unscientific view of inheritance, also one unsupported by careful observation. The children of a great swordsman may be taught the sword by virtue of their place, but training or education in itself will not combine with their upbringing to necessarily make them the equal of their father. The children of a master tactician might well be incapable of visualizing elevation and distance, leading his brave soldiers to their slaughter by sheer inability. Nor will the offspring of a honey-tongued ambassador necessarily be any better than tongue-tied. Nor will a kind, benevolent and trustworthy king’s young princeling necessarily acquire these traits and spare the tax collector’s hot irons, simply because his father would have (and provided a paternal example of that behavior, as well). While genetics might mean that such complex traits (possibly the product of many genes), are more likely to manifest in the offspring of parents who exhibit them phenotypically, this is not enough to make heredity an effective system, and largely ignores both variations in individual personality disposition leading to different proficiencies, and the high potential for a conducive environment to encourage excellence among any group. All too soon in its dynasty, a hereditary aristocratic government relies on the mythos of a superior nobility rather more than the nobility is really anything special, as Ibn Khaldûn observed in his day, and many other honest critics would come to agree; thus finally the Hapsburgs would perpetuate their rule even as they fielded an inbred moron for coronation. In order to function, an aristocracy comes to depend on greater wealth, better education, and other unequal opportunities to mask the real personal mediocrity of most within the noble class, and rests on whatever real potential exists within the nobility for advancement on merit.
Nonetheless, aristocracy both assumed and affirmed the basic principle and possibility of greatness. Just as democracy has both political and cultural aspects, there was a cultural import of aristocracy as well as a political organization by that name, and part of its cultural emphasis could accept excellence without counterreactions such as presumed immodesty, guilt, or shame, or the inversion of value sensibility to the point of endorsing mediocrity over excellence. Regardless of the distorting process of heredity, people who accept aristocracy tend to accept merit, even if they overestimate particular merits for encompassing, overwhelming greatness. In short, aristocracy at least acknowledges elitism in principle.
There is much that is necessary, and nothing problematic about elitism as long as the perception of an elite is based on something substantive and particular, on an accomplishment, ability, or other significant merit rather than on arbitrary qualification, as became the case with the hereditary procession of aristocratic title in Europe under High Middle Ages feudalism and afterward. That is, an elite must be justified specifically on the basis of a particular kind of superiority in order to be well-described as “elite” instead of arrogantly and inaccurately. For example Michael Jordan, and for that matter every professional basketball player is a member of an elite — in basketball, and athleticism. Einstein and Feynman were likewise members of an elite — in physics, theoretical mathematics, and science. (These subdivisions could likewise be subdivided many times, at least as far down as looking at muscular strength or calculative abilities.) Real elitism amounts to realistically describing natural hierarchies according to particular standards, nothing more. Without this willingness for honesty and accuracy, the false implication may follow that people are equal and the same, and further, that excellence goes against this supposed natural order of equality.  But of course this is a dangerous and retarding precedent, because the real natural order involves difference and a corresponding diversity of strengths and weaknesses, forming a natural elite for any and every standard we could measure.
Democracy and Masked Elitism
Democracy and aristocracy are ostensibly at loggerheads because democracy demotes elitism and promotes egalitarianism. In this respect alone, democracy does not compare well. According to a revised, reconsidered understanding of both, we can see that in fact a realistic elitism is necessary and natural in a way that the fictional equality of egalitarianism could never be. Aristocracy was closer to an accurate philosophical appraisal in that it recognized fundamental inequality, however inaccurately.
And in practice, democracy and aristocracy are not in the state of opposition their historical competition and theoretical differences might at first suggest. We might note that democracies as currently realized are often critiqued as too elitist in their structure, and seriously problematic only because their purer democracy is subverted by elites. Commonly, the arrogance of a powerful, wealthy, privileged, and supposedly select few in the democratic world of today is branded by the label “elite.” Yet this does a considerable injustice of simplification to elitism according to its more general meaning, and today’s ‘elites’ have little of the refined senses or sense of nobility traditionally possessed by elites in those cultures consciously and conscientiously founded on elitism.
Let us consider what sorts of political elites would seem possible in a modern ‘egalitarian’ democracy. We would laugh at the idea, today, that fencing champions and their descendents should rule over nations now and in the far future. This is because the past seems quaint; swords are not that important in modern day. But what if we imagined that accurate marksmen, brilliant tacticians, and indomitable soldiers might be formed into such a ruling class? This, the modern equivalent of the old aristocratic systems in the great many places where warrior elites served as aristocracy, is immediately less absurd. We can most easily imagine its advent through a coup or invasion, and quite possibly this is exactly how the aristocracies of the past usually began. Now, what about other, even more plausible candidates for a modern political elite? Let us ask ourselves: who could manipulate the circumstances of a democracy to take and hold power? The most forceful, dominant personalities? The most persuasive or charismatic? The most unscrupulous? Those willing to manipulate, lie, browbeat, or inflict cruelty if they feel a need? Our list becomes: “the most forceful, dominant, persuasive, charismatic, unscrupulous, manipulative, lying, and cruel” — does this sound familiar? Is it not the stereotype of politicians and bureaucrats, a stereotype which exists because it is so often true?
In practice, a certain sort of elite does form in a democracy as well, and not a realistic (specific) elite but the overestimated kind which evolves from actual advantages, as occurred in aristocracies. The “egalitarianism,” “brotherhood” and “equality” proclaimed under democracy mask natural hierarchies, but people seem to desire hierarchies and make false ones — adopting fame, money, or political success as rough measurements of overall importance. The desire to induct people into mental hierarchies even when and where the cultural valuation of egalitarianism demands otherwise, further suggests that elites are natural occurrences that humans are inherently prepared to recognize. But in this case they have gone horribly awry so that some of the most despicable traits are rewarding, and perhaps even necessary in order to get ahead — an unnatural selection of government and social popularity. Of course, aside from this ‘corrupted’ masked elitism, other, potentially realistic and laudable elites may arise in a democracy and almost surely will (in accordance with the fact that natural tendencies continue to express themselves covertly instead of overtly once denounced or ignored) despite a deliberate foundation on egalitarian philosophy and social equality. 
Nothing in the above discussion implies an advocation of meritocracy, as far as the word means political rule according to some measure of merit. This can be no better than a first-generation aristocracy, with all of the problems of confusing any specific measure of merit with overall superiority of person, including a potential lack of other important qualities — and the inherent problems with political power itself, including corruption and abuse. Instead, it implies that no kind of recognizable superiority should be either denied or overestimated, especially not to the point of condoning the overall political power invested in rulers in every governmental society, including democracies. 
Monarchy and Selfish Realism
Socially speaking, that is in terms of the import of basic philosophical tenets to social organization, we can accurately understand monarchy as a form of political elitism like aristocracy. Monarchy is also the predictable historical result of aristocracy; in fact it is a singular form of aristocracy, merely one in which the competition of various nobles of similar power among subdivided territories culminates in victories and consolidations, until finally, however many fits and starts historians can trace, and whatever human tragedies mar the transition — ultimately, a single dominant seat of power is established by one noble line.
Traditionally, nobles were charged with responsibility for maintaining the welfare of their subjects and their lands, insofar as they were expected to profit from them through taxation, and ownership of land essentially ‘public’ by today’s standards. Or else, if they failed in their stewardship, they would gain no such benefit and would suffer loss along with the poverty of their land and people, or most egregiously (for the noble personage) suffer a declining reputation to accompany a decline of the public interest. Such incentives for wise management would persist not only over the lifetime reign of the noble, but generally extend beyond his life into the reigns of his posthumous lineage, to whom he would hope to bequeath a wealthy and proud endowment.
The same is true of monarchs, which aspect of monarchy economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has contrasted with the shortsighted incentives of democratic politicians, who have merely their term in office in which to profit. In a monarchy, characteristically the king hunted the king’s deer in the king’s forest, and all the roads were the king’s roads. He collected taxes according to traditional and limited means, which almost without comparison amounted to a lesser proportion than the taxes collected in today’s democracies. He accrued honors with the victories of his soldiers, and more lands from the territory they gained. In short he and his progeny prospered in economic and honorific terms by the sweat and blood of his subjects — but only so long as they prospered overall, and roughly speaking, he prospered over time according to the same proportion as his subjects on average, over time (although obviously, he would gain a greater amount by any individual comparison). Thus monarchy (and aristocracy) could provide a persistent incentive for the king (or other noble) to rule in a way that maximized economic prosperity, military prowess and social order. Any failure of this incentive to consistently produce relatively prosperous subjects and successful political dominance can be traced to shortsighted miscalculations on the part of foolish or disgraceful rulers, or to the politically competitive world stage on which kings enacted their drama, in which only certain rulers (and thus subjects) can triumph at the expense of others. Nevertheless it must be granted that some considerable incentive did exist for ensuring the welfare of not only the state, but the subjects (whether commoner or noble, poor, middle-class or rich) under such elitist forms of government — and not just the bare minimum so that subjects would not become angry enough to revolt. The secret of (relative) success for these systems was harnessing the power of self-interest, both the subjects’ and the ruler’s. However, modification of any monarchy by incorporating elective, legislative bodies with any considerable power into the government would seal the inevitable ruin of such a system, in that responsibility for success or failure would no longer belong exclusively to the monarch, but to “the public,” and thus it would directly belong to no one.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe on the invasiveness of government in democratic republics compared to monarchies : “There is no doubt that the amount of taxes imposed on civil society increased during the monarchical age. However, throughout the entire period, the share of government revenue remained remarkably stable and low.” It rarely exceeded “more than 5 to 8 percent of national income” according to Hoppe’s citation, “until the second half of the nineteenth century.” From its feudal origins a sovereign’s budget had been limited to the sovereign’s estate until a certain point, which “‘is somewhat as if a government of our own times were expected to cover its ordinary expenditures from the proceeds of state-owned industries.’” Furthermore, “up until the mid-nineteenth century of all Western European countries only the United Kingdom, for instance, had an income tax (from 1843 on).” Other European countries and America followed suit gradually, but “even at the time of the outbreak of World War I, total government expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) typically had not risen above 10 percent and only rarely, as in the case of Germany, exceeded 15 percent. In striking contrast, with the onset of the democratic republican age, total government expenditures as a percentage of GDP typically increased to 20 to 30 percent in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, and by the mid-1970s had generally reached 50 percent.” Hoppe traces similar patterns according to other economic measurements, to the effect that, monarchical centralization having presaged radical democratic centralization, centralization was very gradual in monarchies, and would be completely overshadowed by the new invasiveness of the public regimes.
As Aristotle wrote in his uneven but seminal Politics, both aristocracy and democracy have increasingly exploitive corrupt forms, which coincide with abuse of power and curtailed freedom. [III. vii, § 5] Corruption may lead to revolution, in which democracies become autocracies of some sort, Aristotle correctly noted, most often oligarchies. [V. v, § 1-11] Actually he calls “democracy,” as such, a perversion according to the definition that a “polity” exists when the masses govern according to the common good, and its corrupted form “democracy” pursues just the interests of the poorer.  An aristocracy, involving the rule of the best of men and the best of social aims, corrupts to an “oligarchy” which serves the richer. (This selective understanding of oligarchy, rule of few, we would recognize as plutocracy.) Similarly in his taxonomy a monarchy decays from a noble “kingship” to a “tyranny” that serves the interests of the ruler only. The most noticeable thing about these terms is undoubtedly that the term “polity” never caught on, quite possibly because — just as it probably seemed to the ancient Greeks of Aristotle’s time — it still reads like an unreal, ideal civics lesson more than it suggests any real, or even historically plausible state. To avoid corruption and ruination, the openly elitist forms, “aristocracy” and “kingship,” depend on a disposition to generosity and noble attitudes as part of the self-interest of the nobles or king — unrealistically perhaps, but at least these forms do not require a fundamental adoption of phantom common interests by real people, as does Aristotle’s “polity.” With this in mind we should consider, in addition to other issues of comparison, the threat of deliberate deception and cloaked aims by rulers, as well as simply common delusion and tendency toward a foggy understanding of how one’s society actually works. Since corrupted democracies tend to become oligarchies (if not — even worse — dictatorships) ‘behind the curtain’ of the performance of the expected democratic political play if not in obvious revolution, we might actually consider an aristocracy, as an open oligarchy of sorts modified by custom and honor and the spirit of elitism, to be inherently more “open and accountable” than democracy.
The tendency for democracies to become centralized, authoritarian oligarchies or dictatorships — as well as the previously noted willingness, when opportunity tempts, for pursuing imperial foreign policies which promote undemocratic government abroad and at home (despite lip service to the contrary) — both suggest a close relationship of some kind between democracy and autocracy. We might surmise that in fact, democracy does not so much abhor autocracy as prepare the way for it and beckon it, perhaps intrinsically, from a historical standpoint — making real democracy more a theoretical government than an actual one, or at most more like an inherently transitory government than an enduring species of government, much as an unstable chemical compound wants to decay, and rapidly. Aristotle observed that the revolutionary collapse of democracy into either “tyranny” (dictatorship) or more typically “oligarchy” (recognizable today as “plutocracy”) follows the incitement of the poor against the rich by demagogues, including of course those demagogues who are wealthy themselves. [V. v, § 1-11] Thousands of years later, the predictive validity of this pattern has been bourn out repetitively among every sort of people, in either violent or silent alteration of the status quo, according to how gradual the demagogues perceive the zeitgeist to be. Consider that to avoid an effective corruption to abusive plutocracy, somewhat-satiated aristocrats or kings must simply retain important qualities in addition to already having riches and pursuing further riches, and already having power and pursuing further power. But democrats, the power-sharing many including the poorest ones, must avoid the pursuit of riches through power almost entirely, and for that matter the pursuit of much power. The inevitable occasion of wealth-seeking or power-seeking oligarchs using the tricks of demagoguery to manipulate these masses should be no surprise at all, even granting to Aristotle his idealistic possibility of “the common good” as an identifiable thing among disparate human beings. Aristocracy, then, provides at its inevitable worst an honest autocracy; democracy seems to provide at most a dishonest or temporary respite from autocracy, and then a most dangerous form of control: the domination of autocracy clothed in the auspiciousness of freedom.
Our comparison has suggested that concerning freedom, democracy promises freedom, yet it not only compares unfavorably to monarchy, but also has its own peculiar, remarkable deficiencies in that realm. Similarly we saw that democratic culture promulgates an unnatural idealism as compared to the more honest aristocratic elitist culture, but really follows something far less ideal. We also observed that democracy compares poorly as a source of promise, and that democracy must fail as a bulwark against undesirable change, and more so than the alternatives it displaced.
We must be prepared to see the benefits and drawbacks of any and every system, even if in many circles today this is something like forbidden knowledge. Only then can we proceed, not regressively toward duplication of either the present or the past, but toward a progress that understands the past and present, and thereby fulfills the promise of a future that demands change.
Once thought the best alternative to increasingly arrogant aristocracies and monarchies, democracy has since acquired an air of legitimacy unparalleled as a justification for political power. In retrospect, we must recognize it is no longer the best known alternative, with government or without.
We have seen hints that democracy has unique problems, especially concerning the difference between avowed ideal image, and unadvertised, realistic practicality. The above investigation implied a particular concern over the supposedly intrinsic relationship between democracy and freedom so taken for granted, and might well lead us to wonder about the intrinsic qualities of democracy in general — which if our socio-cultural and political comparisons with aristocracy and monarchy are any indication, will presumably differ from “the party line.” Confronting this puzzle will be the subject of the next, and further Critiques.
Part Two Footnotes:
1. Without analyzing evidence further, I shall not assume prematurely, as so many do, that the association between freedom and democracy in that context was anything but coincidental. [back]
2. Tunisian Abd-ar-Rahman Abû Zayd ibn Muhammed ibn Muhammed ibn Khaldûn, 1332–1406, presented this argument in his Muqaddimah or Introduction to his History as part of an advanced, comprehensive attempt to understand patterns in history. A highly recommended abridged edit by N.J. Dawood of the three volume English translation by Franz Rosenthal is available from Princeton University Press. Interestingly the life span Ibn Khaldûn would predict for the health of states in his time, a maximum of four generations or about 120 years, appears to accurately describe a cycle of psychological and political corruption in modern democracies (including the US, as measured from the founding generation to that 19th century revolutionary age of the Civil War in which the republic of states effectively became a union, or nation-state) — almost as well as the cycles of the royal dynasties familiar to Ibn Khaldûn. [back]
4. Despite the modern notion of the autocratic monarch and the occasional historical example of overlap, simple autocracy should be distinguished from monarchy as generally practiced in history, in that monarchy evolved from and was balanced by historical precedent, formed of religious and other social customs, including aristocratic fealty and relationships, philosophical elitism, and rule by genealogy, the last derived from the inheritance principles of aristocracy, which itself evolved from a philosophical, primarily martial elitism. [back]
5. Yet these authoritarian regimes have often been established or supported, we should note, by the foreign policies of the world’s preeminent democracy. For example, in the past century for various reasons ranging from alliances of temporary convenience, to wars on drug production, to anti-communism, to fascistic economic partnerships and corrupt leverage through Washington, overt and covert US foreign policy relationships have apparently been established helping to create or giving succor to the repressive governments of:
Jorge Rafael Videla’s Argentina, Hugo Banzer’s Bolivia, Humberto Branco’s Brazil, the Sultanate of Brunei Darussalam, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, Fulgencio Batista’s Cuba, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s Dominican Republic, Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez’s El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani’s El Salvador, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, Sitiveni Rabuka’s Fiji, George Papadopoulos’ Greece, multiple military dictatorships in Guatemala, Lansana Conte’s Guinea, Francois and Jean Claude Duvalier’s Haiti, Suharto’s Indonesia, Mohammed Reza Pahlevi’s Iran, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Samuel Doe’s Liberia, Hassan II’s Morocco, Anastasio Somoza Sr.’s and Anastasio Somoza Jr.’s Nicaragua, Sani Abacha’s Nigeria, Mohammed Zia Ul-Haq’s Pakistan, Manuel Noriega’s Panama, Alfredo Stroessner‘s Paraguay, Ferdinand Marcos’ Philippines, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s Portugal, Joseph Stalin’s Russia, Saudi Arabia, Siad Barre’s Somalia, P.W. Botha’s South Africa, Park Chung Hee’s South Korea, Francisco Bahamonde Franco’s Spain, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Taiwan (and previously China), military-ruled Turkey, Idi Amin’s Uganda, Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnam, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s Zaire, and Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Given such a list, which is still not exhaustive, I do not think any appeal is possible over debatable specifics to the extent that the evidence no longer suggests a trend. Yet it cannot reasonably attribute a uniqueness of anti-democracy to the case of the US (much less only to anti-communist US factions, as their political opponents would have it) except for the US having the circumstantial capacities of a superpower. Other democratic and internationally powerful states such as Britain and France have certainly tended to create their own parallel lists according to the opportunity afforded by power-projection capabilities at a given time, especially when one includes unrepresented colonial possessions. Only lack of imperial opportunity ever seems to prevent democracies from undemocratic foreign policies. Like monarchies before them, democracies lack mechanisms for preventing imperial attitudes and are subject to similar imperial temptations as monarchies, so the historical record shows significant correlation. Indeed most of the apparent autocratic competitors to democratic government by present day should be considered by-products of democracy, not extrinsic, as a universal list for all historical democratic sponsorship of undemocratic regimes would show even more. [back]
6. Of the regimes listed in footnote 5, the majority either would not have existed without coup support from the CIA or military, or could not have continued to exist without US support. Most of those were replacing or superceding democratic governments. (For some additional background on US military and CIA interventions since 1945 see William Blum’s Killing Hope.) Once again then, we see the rarity of independently evolving (chosen) autocracies, and that many in the modern era actually came from the activities of factions in democratic governments, in competition with internal factions or other states. [back]
7. If aristocracy, or monarchy are herein discussed with some generalization, a necessity prescribes adopting such an approach of confronting wholes; in order to consider another all-too-whole thing, the universal proscription of “democracy” — whatever that means — for the whole world. As will be justified later, aristocracy and monarchy will be discussed together from now on, especially culturally, as “aristocracy,” although I will make more effort to avoid undue conflation of the two as political systems. [back]
8. Readers of course have the option to conclude that I am burning a straw man of my own with my Critiques of Democracy, though such a rhetorical trick is certainly easier to employ concerning something forgotten and unfashionable. [back]
10. As cultural phenomena, for these purposes I include monarchy as part of aristocracy. Remaining aware that monarchy is not culturally identical to aristocracy, and remembering that once they were seen as two competitive systems, it is my contention that said competition occurred more in the incidental political sphere (e.g. the multi-century decastellation of France as competition between kings and nobles, or the Magna Carta) than in the cultural realm of ideas and their expression (e.g. persistent class differentiation, estate, religiosity, noble artistry); so far as the spheres can be separated, monarchy was a historical result of aristocracy (a development of disputed inevitability, but probably more a likely and understandable, but chance, outcome) more as a gradual extension than a revolutionary change such as marked democracy. Where the political and cultural overlap inseparably there was generally remarkable continuity between aristocracy and monarchy, for example in the importance of genealogy to determine both political power and social worth. It can be hard to say when and where aristocracy ends and monarchy begins, in that the seesaw was gradual in Europe, sometimes virtually invisible (e.g. Germany, Italy) and sometimes reversed in times and places (e.g. the fragmentation of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire), with far more overlap than punctuation. This is in contrast to the age of democracy’s demarcation, in politics, by revolution and the rise of nationalism and rapidly accelerated centralization, especially punctuated by the French revolutionary period in Europe and by the post-WWI Treaty of Versailles for surviving European monarchies, and by the Meiji Revolution in Japan, and similar benchmarks elsewhere — and a demarcation in culture by radically different social ideals and customs (except as far as Britain and imitators pursued a hybrid compromise, parliamentary monarchy). And so finally, it is my contention that meaningful comparison in cultural terms can now be made between democracy on one hand, and the comparatively related aristocracy and monarchy on the other hand. [back]
11. Monarchy in political-historical terms could be called late-stage aristocracy, in which the field of competitors have given way to one victor. The others will either be effectively eliminated from political competition or will remain powerful but owe fealty, as in the system of feudalism. They will be opportune contenders in the event of a power vacuum created by any sort of crisis of the monarchy, especially if they should plan it, but other possibilities include a lack of heirs. This is the scenario which explains the occasional collapse of the monarchy (or equivalent) in some few places and times into a state of fully competitive aristocracy, such as the feudal civil wars of 16th century Japan. [back]
12. Although physical and historical evidence regarding specific cases may necessarily be lacking for the pre-historical times when many culturally-indigenous elites were founded, we may adopt this reasonable theoretical assumption for those cases as well as those with more evidence, as it seems the only explanation save random occurrence. [back]
13. Additionally, an opportunity for dominance and elite formation may arise from the cultural accumulation of technological or other advantages which were never devised by the new elite themselves and thus suggest no causal excellence. This certainly does happen again and again in all ages and enable domination of other cultures. Examples include the fertile crescent invasions and subsequent dynasties (such as the Hyksos’ invasion of Old Kingdom Egypt) on the basis of the chariot, the British domination of India on the basis of the naval warship as major weapons system, and more spectacularly the Spanish conquest and enslavement of much of the Americas, and the Spanish or Portuguese subjugation or exploitation of much of the rest of the world, on the basis of gunpowder cannon, galleons and muskets. But however common, this scenario does not explain the rise of the far more common indigenous elites. [back]
15. The historical links and the self-evident similarities between the philosophical sentiments expressed by, in turn, the egalitarian slogan “all men are created equal,” and second the violent socioeconomic revenge of the French Revolution following its slogan of “liberty, equality, brotherhood,” and finally the economic equalization of socialism (by force, and in its most communist forms by class genocide), should not escape our notice here. Again we have reason to suspect that democracy and communism were circumstantial opponents historically, not ideological opposites. [back]
16. The limited allowance for economic achievement and inequality in the same age as American democratic idealism represents just such a phenomenon of fortunate inconsistency, one responsible for much of America’s relative prosperity and desirability — and unfortunately, one providing the economic power harnessed by American politicians to suggest the apparent superiority of the American hybrid “capitalist” system and build the military superiority of the American nation-state as a “great power” on the world scene. [back]
17. Providing for these considerations and in general aiming toward a natural and open elitism is the very essence of the rule of ideas emphasized in a Promethean society as an overt institution. This involves neither the investment of political power in government, nor the overestimation of the value of the Promethean contribution as leader-teachers among all the other innumerable natural elites we can appreciate in a human population. For we can distinguish Prometheans according to a particular standard suited to a role, much as we can distinguish the talents and sensibilities of a chef, or an artist, or an investor, or an athlete, or a scientist, or a philosopher from other people — although Prometheans comprise a somewhat different kind of cross-section of a population, one marked by an open-minded, inclusive generalism of talents or skills in the form of an interdisciplinary philosophy and practice which is not limited to the capacity for persuasion through ideas — most importantly, a group which is distinguished by a standard judged not only functionally, but motivationally: a life-interest in oneself and others). [back]
19. Notice the interesting fact that by this classification, communism is functionally democracy, not antithetical to democracy, and any socialism classifies as a democracy (or “polity,” a utopian socialist might argue). I have already noted an ideological similarity between democracy and socialism or communism above, and have introduced the idea in Democracy, The Equivocal Standard that communism is akin to democracy in a philosophical-cultural sense, for examples: equality and egalitarianism in terms of applied philosophy, and socialized art in terms of cultural products. [back]
Democracy Versus Freedom:
The Mythos of Mass Liberty
Synopsis: The problems of the modern “liberal democracies” begin at their shaky foundation. This third Critique of Democracy reconsiders the assumed relationship between democracy and freedom, and questions the chimeric ideal of liberal democracy. Includes exposure of enfranchisement, republics and rights.
At Face Value
The chief endorsement for democracy has always been its advertised association with freedom. Many often go so far as to consider democracy and freedom nearly synonymous concepts, or at least assume implicitly that democracy provides freedom, or freedom comes with democracy. To understand democracy and what it means to us, it is critical to determine the accuracy of those unexamined notions of democratic liberty. We must reconsider the accepted liberal-democratic principle.
We could certainly examine the supposed relationship between democracy and freedom in a number of ways. But we might begin by generously taking democracy at face value, as it is supposed to function. But that would only yield a civics lesson. We must follow up by examining democracy as it has factored into the lives of human beings who are supposed to have lived under that theory in practice.
That is, we could first compare freedom with a preliminary evaluation of the sociopolitical theory of democracy, and then proceed to a more interesting comparison to democracy in actual realization, as an employed system of political governance and cultural sensibilities.  The test of actuality should provide our real answer, although surprisingly it usually does not for believers in democracy. However, brief examination of the theoretical does prove somewhat instructive, particularly hinting at why the actual results of the theory take the form they do.
Implications of Majority Rule in Democratic Theory
Abstractly, people consider democracy the political system of a free people, accordingly desired by free people.  But this is the merely associative component of the ‘liberal-democratic’ compound idea. For one reason or another influential conceptions have seized upon this asserted link without deriving any theoretical relationship, except through passionate claim or uncritical assumption. Until I can deal with it more fully, I will put aside for the moment the notion that this association has been acquired and indicated by actual experience with ‘democratic freedom’ rather than by assertive propaganda (and on top of that by a supposed non-coincidental and causative experience with both together, rather than a circumstantial coincidence). For the moment I am looking at theory itself. And the functional aspect of democratic theory indicates something quite different from the assumed liberal-democratic association, even before appraising historical experience.
Even in itself, that is to say in theory abstracted from context, democracy does not mean individual freedom of choice, nor does it mean personal expression, nor even any misunderstanding of personal freedom to mean freedom from something undesirable — “freedom from want” or anything similar. To the contrary, democracy incorporates condoned aggression into its defining principle of majority rule.
Majority rule supersedes whatever meaning any individual’s choice during an election (or other ballot or poll) might have, in that one person — the individual — gets overruled, by definition. Whether the “majority will” constitutes something meaningful or fabricated requires another discussion  beyond the scope of this Critique, but even provisionally assuming collective will means more than so much hollow nonsense, the wants of other people are clearly still forced upon particular individuals as an intrinsic part of the democratic process. And in any democratic system the many is supposed to have the ultimate power to override and subdue individual resistance to achieve conformity with ‘the will of the people’, so-called. Despite any attempted checks to modify or limit this in the theory behind democratic republics, in serious matters (and matters taken as serious), majority rules and minority yields to its compulsion, even its aggression, in the avowed basic theory behind every society which is democratic in definition. “Serious matters” here means (at the very least): concerning any questions of individual sovereignty versus mass sovereignty. And therefore, individual sovereignty under a democracy is not sovereign at all. Force remains implicit against individual choice and its exercise, should the individual contradict sufficient number of others. Democratic theory condones aggression, at the very least for the compulsion of those who take exception.
This is because democratic theory is still a governmental theory. It provides for political power and the institutional, hierarchic rule of authority by a centralized monopoly on force, the ultimate monopoly which may obtain any other monopoly, and which means centralized compulsion, by intimidation or ultimately, violence. A democracy is still a fundamentally archic or (politically) ruled society, instead of inhabiting the alternate spectrum of fundamentally anarchic possibilities. In fact this -cracy is more basic to the system in theory than its popular qualification, that the demos is supposed to rule. A democracy is still governed politically, which tends against freedom in practice as well as theory.
“It has been said that terror was the mainspring of despotic government. Does your government, then, resemble a despotism? Yes, as the sword which glitters in the hands of liberty’s heroes resembles the one with which tyranny’s lackeys are armed. Let the despot govern his brutalized subjects by terror; he is right to do this, as a despot. Subdue liberty’s enemies by terror, and you will be right, as founders of the Republic. The government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny. Is force made only to protect crime? And is it not to strike the heads of the proud that lightning is destined?”
The assumption that real exercisable, individual freedom and centralized, political control in government can coexist as a hybrid social system — the sine qua non of modern “liberal democratic” states — is a contradictory, impractical and dangerous principle utterly at odds with the implications of majority rule, and as we will see, at odds with actual experience of employed “democracy” also, far more importantly.
A Hypothesis of Disassociation: Freedom and Democracy are Coincidentally Determined by Shared Cultural Tendencies.
Under the banner of Democracy, that is in times and places considered “democratic,” citizens have enjoyed commonplace individual freedom undreamed of in previous ages, yet also under Democracy citizens have suffered under rare tyrannies as well. Democracy has had breadth indeed, from social climates of 1800 America to 1933 Germany, for just two greatly contrasting examples. It has left history with exemplars as disparate as Thomas Jefferson, Pericles and Robespierre. How can this variance be explained?
The answer is that as with any society, ‘democratic’ or not, shared cultural tendencies tend to be expressed in the practice of government. Where people will accept a tyrannical central government — whether out of passivity (a pattern often evident in modern America) or wholehearted acceptance and endorsement of an authoritarian foundation for political science like Leviathan, or Manifest Destiny (often evident in societies with imperial heritage) — they will get a tyrannical central government. On one hand the popularity of National Socialism in Germany followed the resurgence of prideful nationalism of a cowed population, and thus Nazism triumphed through the mechanics of democracy. On another hand the greater personal freedom exercised in early America among the settlers, first in the colonies and then in the States, could hardly have been a credit to democracy (because it preceded widespread representation), but a credit to a shared belief in freedom among intrepid people — and in the comparably free  colonial days preceding the democratic republic, also to a temporary lack of interference by an imperial Crown which happened to be occupied elsewhere.
At this point we might take as a hypothesis: the association between suffrage (“the vote”) and openness, opportunity, and freedom has developed from circumstantial historical accident. This arbitrary linkage came from no necessary relation or similarity.
If so we cannot give democracy credit for popular freedom any more than we can blame it for popular tyrannies. The comparatively great freedom of the early United States and its resulting prosperity was not the result of the foundation of a political democracy in the form of an elective republic. Rather, it was a temporary continuance of the freedom and prosperity of the American colonies which had happened to enjoy a laissez-faire treatment under the Crown which largely ignored their existence. By the time the King and Parliament acted to tighten the mother country’s grip, the colonists had grown accustomed to the proven advantages of freedom. With that and a heady intellectual diet of English Enlightenment era writings endorsing the rights of the individual citizen, they would not stand for it. After the Revolution, this culture of freedom survived for some time under a political democracy — and the relative freedom and relative prosperity of the 19th century, and then the 20th such as it was, followed as the result. One can imagine an alternate history without coincidence of democracy and liberty, in which paper ballots do not by now suggest to anyone a bold spirit of personal expression.
A Modified Thesis of Relation to Freedom: Democracy not only Intersects Freedom Coincidentally but also Represents a Potential Antagonist to Freedom.
Democracy has become associated with freedom (by coincidence, we have just hypothesized). But a democracy is not limited by some intrinsic inclination to a common appreciation for freedom, or respect for individuals. In political theory democracy encompasses something much more general: popular government, that is enforcing the will of the majority.
Democratic people attend, regard, and even enshrine popularity, which in politics takes the form of majority (or plurality) consensus in elections, polls, referenda and plebiscites. Popular consensus does not deserve to be enshrined simply because of greater numbers. Sometimes popular consensus happens to be in favor of individual freedom and autonomy, and that is what deserves to be enshrined — freedom, perhaps even the desire for freedom — regardless of its unpopularity.
Whatever constrains a majority consensus to prefer to respect freedom of individuals? To take an abject example, a lynching counts as democracy, too. It is, after all, the majority’s wish, the mob’s wish, to lynch. At first, a lynching may seem to present an unfair illustration. What we are trained to balk at would be the absence of a due process of law. But, democratic law  is largely rubber-stamping what is accepted if not favored by a majority; a majority could certainly favor a law to lynch a man. That is, unless they are legally prevented from this exercise of democracy by an undemocratic law (which people must also observe to make it effective). The American Constitution with its Bill of Rights is one set of undemocratic laws, but even this is democratic enough to provide for popular amendment. With enough approval in the process, any law, even a hypothetical Law of Lynching would be properly legal. Unfortunately this point is not merely a thought experiment. Under democracy law presents a meager obstacle to the tyranny of the majority. In fact, I could point out that the death penalty remains legal in America because it is popular, not because it follows the principles of inviolable freedom. Whatever the majority or plurality supports can easily become legalized regardless of its implications for freedom, and if democracy functions at all as intended, this should tend to happen.
There are countless ancient and modern examples of what happens when the majority rules and the unpopular minority is exploited or killed, and not simply on the local level of a lynching — the genocide of America’s native populations, for instance . In many times and places the majority has preferred to violate the individual’s freedom or constrain an isolated group of individuals. But this does not necessarily mean the extreme of the excused killing of minorities or individuals, but far more universally, discriminatory laws against a group, or laws designed to empower influential groups against less powerful individuals. When the American Constitution itself was drafted and ratified, the legal recognition of slaves as 3/5 citizens for the purposes of legislative representation (without accompanying liberty) reflected popular attitudes which assumed they were less significant people. (The 3/5 compromise related to a debate between Southern desires to have them count legally as full people in a census and Northern desires to have them not count at all, with no popular insistence on the recognition of their freedom.) Indeed, democracy in itself provides no protection to the individual, not to mention a group of individuals, when they come up against the whims of greater numbers.
At this point we may begin to suspect we should reconsider our previous provisional idea of no relationship between democracy and freedom. Our previous hypothesis of coincidence did not go far enough. It seems instead that sometimes democracy does have a relationship with freedom — an antagonistic relationship. This connects with the implications of theory considered earlier.
People, or at least speechmakers and editorial molders of public opinion, often discuss democracy as a liberating influence, as an antidote for authoritarianism. It is thought that democracy safeguards freedoms — in the loose and faulty political vocabulary of these times , that it safeguards rights. In this line of thinking, democracy itself has become an avowed right along with lists of real, personal freedoms of expression. But voting itself is not an expression of a basic freedom. It is from one perspective a participation in compulsion; political power depends on force, and voting attempts to exercise political power, so in an extended sense, voting involves the application of force which will compel others to follow. From another perspective, probably a more accurate one, voters willingly involve themselves in politics and thus accept and invite official enforcement of politicians’ orders directed against themselves as well as others, more than they actually participate in that force by doing so. After all, the actual influence one vote has in itself is usually quite negligible. In any case no one may opt out as far as governments are concerned; to justify this political theorists have even made up an implicit “social contract,” to which they claim everyone unwillingly subscribes by existing. Yet, no one forgets or is allowed to forget that a democratic official is popularly elected, and that whatever he commits in office “we have asked for it” by voting. The sanction of democracy can thus be a powerful tool against freedoms.
“Democracy gives every man the right to be his own oppressor.”
— James Russell Lowell (19th century poet)
For democracy to safeguard freedoms presupposes a popular desire which may or may not be a reliable assumption depending on culture, as alluded above. While we may correctly observe that living with a democratic sociopolitical system hardly impacts freedom neutrally and I would argue tends to detract rather than conduce, still its qualities depend on the shared sensibilities which contribute to culture. But just how likely is a culture of freedom in a political society? Particularly in a democratic one? If influential people within government or attached by profit or advantage find it in their interest to mold public opinion, they may have little trouble doing so through the organs of mass media, manipulating or withholding information and making use of the highly developed techniques of propaganda. And manipulating public opinion through mass media is most profitable in a democracy, which is institutionally based upon the principle of a uniform public collectively conceptualized as a willing actor, differences dismissed in the name of “the people.” Unfortunately, many bureaucrats, politicians, associated industrialists, beholden journalists, lobbyists, lawyers, activists, celebrities, and others generally perceive the apparent advantages of minding one’s own business to compare poorly with those of minding everyone’s business, whether they chase after financial, power-aggrandizing, reputation-building, or attention-getting gains. A shared cultural affection for freedom, while inconvenient to such people’s aspirations and agendas, will not take very long to erode of meaning even as it probably continues on as a useful source of marketable slogans and national shibboleths.
Particularly, in the modern era economic freedoms get systematically violated by democratic governments which might otherwise sustain other social or bodily freedom (although some do constrain those areas of personal freedom almost as often as economic activity, in the name of decency and the standards of the community). This possibly follows the legacy of millennia of indoctrinated and compulsory moral altruism, commonly invoked upon others where there is avarice to be sated — or possibly it happens just because collectivizing wealth itself directly rewards powerful people most readily in the naked terms they typically appreciate. In practice, democracy tends to eventually favor not individual financial independence but the seizure and distribution of wealth and property to whichever groups can best organize political leverage through election. Politicians in a democracy quickly find that pandering to the redistributive desires of constituents offers the easiest road to election, combined with factional banding by party and smaller political action groups. Complex bargaining organizations and procedures invariably spring up, from the political machines of ancient Rome to modern era Chicago or New York City (e.g. the infamous Tammany Hall). For this reason H. L. Mencken said “government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction in stolen goods.” The phenomenon of progressive financial corruption within a democracy was dramatically encapsulated by the historian Alexander Tyler in a famous quote:
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship.”
I have encountered the opinion, erroneous or not, that he intended this strictly as a criticism of pure democracy, not a democratic republic. Comparing his account with the ongoing histories of democratic republics, I certainly wonder why he would restrict such an apt, universal description.
Commentary on the Complications of Rights and Republics
Doubtless some sticklers will consider any argument like mine, which treats democracy and constitutional republics as more alike than different, to be fudging an important distinction they hold dear. They believe that while the mob rule of a ‘true’ democracy does indeed abuse freedom, a constitutional republic does not count as democracy. Many such people in America particularly, averse to the corruption of the modern democracy, advocate a return to strictly constitutional republican government in order to restore an idealized state which they believe once protected individual freedoms through a system of officially guaranteed rights. The intertwined concepts of rights and republics do comprise complications to any discussion of freedom and democracy which deserve mention (here, only briefly), though I do not agree on the productivity of making a strict distinction between democracy and republic, nor do I share a faith in legal rights to grant or safeguard freedom.
Idealizers of the old Republic, or of their image of the glory days of the old Republic, like to draw a distinction between a democracy and a republic, meaning that a republic is a constitutionally or legally limited government based on democratic representation whereas a democracy is direct majority rule. I do not find that technical point interesting any more; I am no longer impressed with it as I once was (having been taught to revere the Constitution and look back with nostalgia at ‘good old days’ I have never known). Strictly speaking a republic can take any form, it only means state (literally, res publica, or ‘public thing’ in classical Latin). What we now mean by “republic” is virtually always a democratic state in some substantial measure, which is to say: holding elections to bestow offices of considerable, not superficial power.
Nor does it seem that the undemocratic limits upon such democracy in a republic sufficiently restrain the democratic threat to freedom implicit in the clout of the malleable majority. And this is not remotely a new problem. Recall that the Roman Empire began as the world’s first elective, civil, and to some degree democratic republic. The Roman Res Publica (to adopt the Romans’ collectively personified civil consciousness for a moment, which moderns relearned in the era of the nation-state) conquered most of its eventual provincial territory in a series of internally-popular wars, impoverished its economically-productive citizens with taxes to fund the bureaucracy and the army and supply the poorer with handouts, imposed military drafts, curtailed and eroded civil liberties, granted and accepted dictatorships in times of emergency, and suffered repeated dramatic military coups and authoritarian upheavals, while it still remained a political republic with elections, democratically-acclaimed laws and legal protections for citizens, and this corruption of the state into an imposition upon its citizens began long before Romans could stand obeying a king or emperor. Compare this list to the troubling histories of other powerful republics since Rome, such as Britain, France and America (not to mention some even more troubling modern historical examples, volatile minor republics in China, Japan, the Indian subcontinent, South Africa, Germany, Israel, etc.). Then as now, the structure of a republic did not seem to restrain the massive tidal pull of democracy to become mob rule and to tear apart civilization. It is time to admit republics have been tried and tested long enough, and they do not work. 
Even specifying a democratic constitutional republic (Rome had no written Constitution like America, although they were certainly familiar with the institution of legal rights) — I think history’s proofs are clear enough, and by itself the American failure is clear enough on the point that constitutionalism is much overrated in the protection of liberty. For there is something of a catch-22 in any society founded on depicting the rights of the individual citizen compared with the rights of the state: either
A) the individual enjoys considerable rights which are not easily outweighed by the sheer power of the state, but the productive capability harnessed by the state is lacking and therefore some less independent, less self-motivated citizens clamor for the state to provide more to them,
B) the powerful state easily outweighs the puny rights of the individual.
The first condition invariably shifts to the second. 
And in the end, beliefs and ideas toward whatever ends are not blocked by static words on pieces of paper. Rights cannot block the intent to transgress them any more than war is blocked by treaties if enough people want to fight instead of trade, or graft is blocked by intent of laws if incentives run the wrong way, as happens in any state (officials and citizens charged with serving the conjectured ‘public interest’ of the state naturally retain self-interests). So long as people’s ideas coincide with freedom, the system of constitutional rights looks successful, despite its irrelevance in the matter. And perhaps writing down freedom-oriented principles as laws helps people to focus on them as cultural values, and retain them in this role longer than they otherwise would due to having a famous memetic reminder, though this effect does not really require legality. (This is almost certainly true of the First Amendment in America, at least.) But this does not last if people pay attention to the wrong thing, and the inherent attractions of immediate corruption do not help them to stay focused on the long-term importance of safeguarding an enduring freedom.
The evolution of the language of rights did not create respect for autonomous and independent individuals, it reflected and described the way people were already behaving and conceiving of themselves and one another, a probable consequence of the self-expression which attracts such respect and is only possible in freedom. The American tradition of individual freedom has owed little to the Constitution. Regardless of the law, it is the rule of the ideas of freedom which was responsible, a credit to personal not national independence. Evidently, now that quite different social ideas have become dominant in thought, the Constitution is powerless to prevent the transgression of freedom by the government, and the minority of principled constitutionalists are left impotently debating a dead issue. Only those freedoms which remain especially dear, such as freedom of speech and freedom to possess and ingest drugs, still benefit from strong arguments, but tellingly even they are (at the very least) debated if not curtailed, regardless of whether the Constitution guarantees them or not.  All freedoms mentioned in the Bill of Rights are progressively eroded today if they still remain respected at all. Following common belief, all other, unspecified rights now belong implicitly to the state, along with the monopolized right to decide the meaning and scope of rights in the state’s courts and execute the laws as those in government see fit. 
The idea that a democratic republic is something specially protective of freedom amounts to nothing more than a modern conceit, I am afraid. A democratic, constitutional republic like America amounts, at best, to a delayed and diluted democracy, whilst a kind of aristocracy with the modesty to avoid using the word. Whatever other form could a democracy have taken in the modern era, with enormous populations necessitating representation rather than assemblies, and government increasingly relying on legal text to make sense of itself? If a democracy must involve governance only conducted in some common gathering in order to qualify as a democracy, no formal government in history would count; for the word to retain meaning as a category of government a republic must count as democratic. Some modern people seem to have the impression that in earlier ‘pure’ democracies like Athens, citizens all gathered in the square and voted on everything, and that the ‘sophisticated’ republican ideas like law and officials only came along recently. (In every historical example of a democracy, people selected officials mandated to make decisions for them; so even Athens had its Boule and not only its Ecclesia, and though Athenians eschewed elections in favor of lots, they did elect archons and generals.) The ‘new’ modern republic is just the contemporary form of democracy, a variation on the same essential themes spanning a tiny arc in the larger spectrum of social possibilities, suffering from problems really similar to those of any form of democracy throughout history.
Origins of the Liberal-Democratic Chimaera in Confusion Over Self-Rule
Democracy is thought of as “self-rule” — an idea intimating freedom. But on what grounds?
Prometheanism implies and posits a few related reasons why individuals should have to master themselves, not simply obey others as their master, and should “rule” (or manage) themselves, not rule or be ruled by other people.
1. To liberate self-expression in the individual, which goes toward exercising integrated strength in that person with its personal (and broader) benefits
2. To remove the imposition of the individual from other individuals, which helps to liberate their self-expression in turn
3. In the complexity of the world, an individual tends to be best qualified to manage their own affairs in the pursuit of self-expression due to immediacy to relevant motivation, sensation, evidence, knowledge, etc.
Freedom, therefore, is more desirable in usual cases, and the obvious overriding unusual case is transgression of others’ freedom, to which the second reason relates. And considering those reasons we can observe that self-rule is really inseparable from personal freedom; by enabling sensations of power in and over oneself, self-rule inspires a sense of freedom opening the world for an individual’s ventures, as well as describing a condition of freedom among and between individuals at the same time.
Democracy however does not equate with this free self-rule at all. Democracy only amounts to “self-rule” if the phrase loses its personal meaning, if “self” becomes an imaginary collective individual conflated with a group of individuals, and “rule” means political machinations for mastery and management over others, instead of mastery or management of one’s own faculties and personal affairs. It seems that the misidentification of political democracy with freedom, and eventually the perceived synonymity of the two must have resulted from this confusion over two very different senses of “self-rule” (or “self-determination” in the preferred political phrase). It seems likely the present liberal-democratic idea, as incongruously crossbred as a Chimaera, came from this conflated, agglomerated notion of self-rule. Such a outwardly semantic problem, as so often happens, was likely compounded at the more primal levels of ideation by the lingering, culture-collectivizing habits of the prehistoric clan, and even much older genetic instincts of species to adopt the “identity” of the social group, flock, herd, or pack in place of personal identification. Thus, despite intimate phenomenal experience indicating oneself as a primarily distinct entity in perceptions and internalized characteristics, by now a human being could actually get subsumed into a sloppy and inaccurate linguistic ideation of just what oneself means — with little remark about it.
Thus a mythic “political freedom” through “democracy” has at times become verbally and conceptually indistinguishable from functional individual freedom in both common and esoteric discourse. With their continual progression along this course and tremendous strides in doublethink, people have even acquired the ability to assert freedom itself just in rhetoric and hold it for themselves as a true mental chimera, a figment without any evidence whatsoever reflecting and proving beliefs in appreciable terms.
For example, during wars and other political upheavals replacing one group of leaders with another, people receive the order that they have been “liberated” — particularly when it is said that “democracy” will be installed, although dictators also like to sound like this. Ballot boxes somehow make people “free”, whatever functional freedoms rulers deny them on an individual basis.
Reconsider the American example itself, for the United States government is the prototype, self-styled champion and apotheosis of “freedom and democracy.” After over two centuries of originally few but generally increasingly arrogant and arbitrary restrictions imposed upon official citizens inside “The Land of the Free,” plus almost four centuries of capricious, violent exploitation and oppression of the members of tribes who jointly owned the land (unrecognized as citizens when it was taken), and of course the exploitation of enslaved Africans for up to two centuries — not to mention imperialist, colonialist and mercantilist expansions outside — an idyllic vision of America still gets much press and much adulation as the bastion of “freedom” because of its so-called “self-rule” via government. Which reputation factually derives from having a long-standing politically democratic tradition, if not nearly as much real individual freedom to think and act and conduct one’s personal and private affairs.
Elsewhere virtually every government, regardless of the local allowance of really applied rather than theoretical self-rule, has since caught on to this utilitarian pretense as well. The incentives of politics render this procession of politicians’ invoking mythic freedom quite understandable from their top-down point of view. The more remarkable thing is that so many other citizens in democratic societies like America continue to prefer mythical and undifferentiated freedom despite getting the receiving end of applied unfreedom at the same time. Or perhaps this too is not so remarkable at all, since a critical eye would cast freedom as something that must still be won with great collaborative personal efforts, rather than something which was already and long ago won by other people in a political revolution.
Such ludicrous confusion, which takes democracy as self-rule and proceeds to detach freedom from experience entirely, comes with sloppy thinking and sloppy language, in other words rampant philosophical error. Mainstream political philosophy regarding democracy clings to superficial fallacy, with an accustomed distraction from inconvenient reality which only those sponsored by government and schooled in centralized and orthodoxical systems could perpetuate so tenaciously.
How did this daunting problem snowball to quite such enormous proportions? It was actually rolling along on its inexorable way before the overtly democratic age, having been given early pushes by those who already advocated democratic principles before there was much democracy in practice. So the answer is probably just that no one could put on the brakes, given the related ideological limitations of the age before the democratic age. Alternative precursors amounted to either abject or customary dictation by absolute rulers, before the elective and legislative procedures associated with democracy infiltrated political thinking and institutions, so no sensible disputation of the self-rule mythos could come forth from the political sphere, which relied on precisely the same fallacies. In particular, since monarchs had long been struggling to centralize and solidify power in their countries, pushing the myth of national unity personified in them versus aristocratic rule identified with local character, for royals to refute collective thinking and collectivizing would have meant cutting their own political heads off in advance, if they would even allow themselves to conceive of the philosophy involved. Similarly aristocrats depended on identity-conflation too on a smaller, marginally more personalized scale. Both depended on depriving people of some of their freedom in functional terms, as does any government, if only due to that institution’s assumed, attempted monopoly on effective social force.
As it happened, nobody offered any accurate ideas on freedom to the monarchs’ disgruntled or desperate subjects which could revise the underpinnings of the new democratic-liberty mythology spreading among them and compete with this new idol, and certainly the competing old regime systems would hardly have supported such revision of their own fundamentals anyway. Lack of attention to the demands of realistic, pragmatically-evaluated philosophy threw the world into redoubled confusion in the age of popular government, chaining people in sometimes even more onerous subjugation, even as they supposedly became free masters of their own lives for the first time in history, and even as the differentiating prosperity of the industrial age could provide them more leisure, options and opportunities to make use of freedom then ever before. Out of this muddled contradiction of power and powerlessness has come a disconnected, mass madness almost tangible in certain cultural effects upon life… a predicament from which the world has not yet recovered, in which freedom has become meaningless and yokes cannot be felt unmistakably even by those who wear them.
Introducing Democracy as a Tool of Political Power Consolidation: the Historical Role of Enfranchisement
Supposing that people mistake democracy for self-rule, as I have said, we should at least expect them to operate on this assumption in good faith. And in fact taking this at face value does describe the most common, good-natured attitude towards democracy. It does not however in any way cover the political attitudes towards democracy, which find it useful and employ it cynically for the reasons that the agendas of kings, emperors, lords or clerics once employed any opiate of the masses.
Chief among the cynical political uses of democracy is the way power crafts a more beguiling civil bond from enfranchisement and the hope it represents.
The main reason for electoral enfranchisement has not been and is not the superficial cause, a desire to set more men (and then with the women’s suffrage movement, women) “free,” according to the literal meaning of the word enfranchisement and a firm if naïve belief in popularized representative democracy as the ideal political form, because of a false equation of political action with freedom. That ideological reason has been professed far more than it has had any bearing, except for a few true believers such as John Stuart Mill, an early proponent of women’s suffrage in Britain.
For most proponents of enfranchisement with a stake in power or ambition to acquire one, the main reason has been political opportunism. These proponents want to strengthen their own status quo or impose a new one; the issue of others’ choices serves as a means to an end, and they do not truly entertain the unpredictability of others’ wishes as a welcome part of the future they have already planned out. They have sufficient confidence in the unwillingness or inability of any new minority electorate to overthrow their agenda in some capricious result, and sufficient confidence in the manageability and malleability of the new voters’ supposed “voice” at the polls, when properly mobilized to become absorbed in the challenge or resistance against opponent factions. They are willing to risk enfranchisement for their sake; they do not envision liberation, nor would they wish to bestow it if they did.
For instance, party Republicans of the North during the American Civil War’s postbellum era (“Reconstruction”) mostly did not have any special fondness for Negro freedom in the South, and demonstrably very few whites in general considered men or women like themselves to be much akin to black men or women. However party Republicans did have confidence in garnering more votes in the South due to the image of Lincoln as Great Emancipator and the North as victorious liberator and Southern occupier, and they did know that by voting, Negroes would change nothing substantive which Republicans did not want to change (especially as long as Southern Negroes voted Republican). Any mere political liberation means sham liberation. A vote would not confer respect or wealth to sharecroppers in bitter lands ravaged by Northern industrial arms, nor would any mere legislation raise blacks to appraised comradeship with whites. For that an ideological environment of individualistic openness and free economic opportunity would be necessary. (And the Republican party powerful had very little interest in that, only an interest in servicing popular biases to get votes, and servicing the corporatist interests that bankrolled their campaigns, with tariffs, land grants, and other examples of economic fascism.) Thus white Northerners at the time had little concern over “uppity Negroes” taking any real power or challenging the “natural order” of races as most whites saw it (that would increase with subsequent migration of blacks to Northern cities). But they could recognize Negro enfranchisement as a pragmatic tool for keeping the Southern Democratic factions down if nothing else, and that was reason enough for the occupiers to get blacks in the South voting (and prevent ex-Confederates at the same time), with voting conducted at gunpoint in some cases — never mind that blacks in the South would be the ones to suffer the backlash for all this personally (in lynchings and many indignities) once abandoned to local systems in the Jim Crow Era. Of course eventually, within a century, most blacks would change their minds about the parties in the Civil Rights Era, sold on another scheme of making some real gains through laws. Today, an analogous pattern might be predictable in America with Mexican, Puerto Rican and other immigrants, whom party Democrats have frequently advocated making into citizens readily upon entry into the States, surely once again based in large part on the political opportunities they perceive in enlarging their own voting base.
fiat freedom for votes in the South
Consider also a much older example, one with a more transparent agenda, or one modern people can more readily recognize as such. Once citizenship was also how Roman politicians pacified subjects and staved off future revolt.  They subsumed conquered foreign citizens into the young Roman Republic, making them citizens in fits and starts, mostly by a process of various intermediary stages. This meant they paid taxes, supplied conscripts and yielded in other ways to the edicts of the Roman government, coming from officials backed by Roman punishment and ultimately by the mighty Roman army. So while in practical terms it meant they lost freedom, they appeared to get on the side of a virile patriotism if they psychologically identified with the collective group. As the democratic ‘proof’ of this stake in the political power that had bested and subjugated them, they would be in time invited to gain voting and other rights along with their new obligations, and to gain a place as full “Romans” in their minds (if not necessarily in the minds of Romans in Rome). Tellingly the Emperors, who were generally more concerned with holding onto the empire of provinces already acquired under the Republic rather than expanding, greatly extended the practice of granting citizenship to many more provincials, although this no longer included the same electoral rights (or at least, the offices subject to election were no longer so powerful). Of course in the late Empire, when a declining Rome appeared to boast less potent a standard, some citizens living on the borders of the empire actually saw through the burdens of citizenship and defected to the less-centralized rule of chieftains among those the Romans called barbarians.
bread, circuses, and Roman citizenship to quiet the rabble
The substance of the situation since then continues to be the manipulation of power, which uses the idealism of democracy to hide behind. This strategy offers the invitation to full membership in a nation to silence skepticism and harness pent-up, churning emotions in the name of patriotism — rather than the unthinkable alternative: real, deep, philosophical-and-pragmatic rebellion against power aggrandizers’ eternally preferred form of order: political control, which can always be captured or influenced if they do not have it, and exercised or enlarged if they already do. Now in the democratic age, ages-old naked political power aggrandizement masquerades in finery, making a cloak of the flag which appears to citizens as freedom, the idea.
Democracy Works, as a Means to Rule a Mob
It is by now common to hear people in America, Britain and elsewhere bemoan an insufficient quantum of democracy in their systems. They complain about an undemocratic corruption, by which the less appealing activists mean the inability to push their agendas on others, but fortunately more of those complaining seem to describe with this term “undemocratic” a more stifling authoritarian statism, or less expression of what people actually want. That is, in this terminology people perceive a lack of personal freedom and sense of expression. They sadly stake their faith for these things on politics rather than themselves. They may not naively trust in politics — they do criticize the system — they just fault it for insufficient democracy, most of all.
It is however critical to remember that the “undemocratic” (in the senses of dictatorial, regimented, bureaucratic, authoritarian) current republics did not come from nowhere, systemically. The causative, or at least enabling precedent was the establishment of democratic institutions which follow from democratic assumptions. These states did not begin as something other than democratic societies, and democracy was necessarily the means by which factions consolidated their power. As I noted preliminarily in the previous Critique, it seems that democracy beckons and presages dictatorship. Those who accuse a president or prime minister of acting like a tyrant today and call for more democracy as the antidote to liberate themselves should remember the democratic origins of their predicament, and that any tyrant or usurping faction can only have employed democratic machinery of election and party in order to consolidate power beforehand. In fact the project of power accretion through such machinery is an old one by now. Within less than a century (to say nothing of weaker power grabs before then) the United States already had a tyrannical president who suspended civil legal protections, jailed dissidents, closed newspapers, brazenly served highest-bidder corporate interests in concerted economic fascism, fomented imperialism, employed propaganda of shameless biblical proportions, and overall abused others’ personal freedom and safety for his own or his adopted interests.  Modern day should really suggest a sense of déjà vu recalling the history of that time and the century and a half of “great men” in office since that precedential president, not a sense of baseless nostalgia calling for the restoration of democracy.
Unfortunately, by modern times the common association is a connection between democracy and freedom, not democracy and tyranny. This is partly due to the historical coincidences of greater freedom and democracy in America and in England, or both resulting from common cause (primarily mutually appreciated ideals and prosperity). Moderns believe they know democracy means freedom. But the ancients knew otherwise because they had different paradigms, such as the instability of Athens, from where we got the word “demagogue” for a reason.  The Europeans of the late 18th century and Napoleonic period clung ever more to their ancient regimes because of their knowledge of just what blood liberty, equality, and brotherhood liked to spill, in practice. Of all modern people, Orwell knew better than to trust in democratic revolution, or should have, if only through dystopian insight, because he understood the danger of political upheaval and that the point of a political revolution is power, not ideals: “no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.” 
Yet most moderns can only be perplexed when they find out their cherished democratic institutions are preceding and producing tyrants (and of the most boring kind). People think something must be wrong; democracy must have been betrayed somehow, as they shake their heads at the dictatorial mentalities of powerful people. As I have noted, to the most accumulated and consolidated power come the most upsetting cases, attracted by the opportunity. To that sort of power an unbroken string of petty tyrants for presidents have wormed their way — not just the brute buffoon presently in office but many, for a long time, in fact, but which increasingly in recent years resembles a series of miscreants fit for a new Suetonius to chronicle.
The “common people” democracy supposedly serves don’t realize that everything is working perfectly, for the tyrants. Democracy, another political system accordingly designed for the rulers and by the rulers, is serving its function. Democracy is working as it must, having reached its fruition: mob rule. But that does not mean what most think; typically when the mob rules an oligarchy really rules the mob, unless they entirely fail in their chosen role and the mob becomes uncontrollable. Mob rule goes hand in hand with demagoguery, and manipulation of the masses.
“Democracy” concerns the demos (Athenian Greek), “the people” collectively, the common populace. Democracy considers the numbers and favors the “masses” and so it produces them. To recast a common political metaphor, democracy raises sheep. Sheep do not want to lead, nor think discriminately. Sheep feel most at home in the herd, led wherever they go. They want a shepherd, one will keep them feeling safe, safe and the same, leading them wherever they go, without droving them so hard that they ever must realize (and resent) that they might as well be dragged by the nose. Whether said shepherd (inevitably) fleeces or consumes them, they get a rude surprise — as they were on a dutiful lookout for a wolf in the fold.
A Demos Chooses to Avoid Choice, an Individual May Learn It
By various areas of approach I have talked about how very erroneously democracy gets identified with freedom. One pillar of the liberal-democratic concept remains.
Freedom implies choice. It means self-determined rather than regimented behavior, enforced by violence and compulsion.  Without choice, “freedom” is a meaningless assertion. And ultimately the most substantive support for the idea that democracy intrinsically provides freedom is that democracy appears to offer choice.
In democracy, although most officials remain installed bureaucrats some officials and leaders may be elected by the mechanisms of popular elections according to majority or plurality of ballots, from among the available options (those candidates named from within dominant political parties). Certain issues may be subject to popular referendum. Popularity polls may influence policy considerably. In a sense, these involve choices. So democracy does admittedly supply choice — in a very limited, channeled, specific and particular political sense.  But it really operates not through the practice of choice in the usual sense of the word, but on the basis of yielding it.
People, and especially those trained to act as the herd so valued in the culture of democracy (and in other mass-oriented value systems), will use their opportunities for choice to choose not to have choice, whenever possible. They will choose, according to whim, to yield the freedom to make future choices they might have made for themselves, especially demanding ones. They will instead empower leaders, officials and bureaucrats to think for them. Otherwise what could possibly explain the recurring appeal of censorship throughout the ages? (Remember how often censorship appeals not only to those who wish to become empowered censors, but to those who would accept censorship which affects them.)  Or the modern affection for banning or regulating potentially dangerous substances or inventions , contravening the complete personal choice of the buyer?
Like most lifeforms, humans tend to prefer the easy way, or more exactly the way which seems easier or least consumptive of energy compared to evident reward. They may instinctively prefer to yield responsibility to others if they believe they can do so in trust (which democratic faith promises: “government for the people and by the people”). They will choose not to have to be responsible unless they must discern and discriminate for themselves. To avoid this from moment to moment, it may seem easier to make “the public” or people as a whole responsible for oneself, which really means empowering politicians and bureaucracies, losing freedom and yielding choice.
There is a sense in which people must be ‘forced’ out of their complacency. They would often prefer not to be responsible for personal choices and therefore must be compelled by circumstances. I do not mean they must be compelled by force in a political, militant or physical sense here, but rather by the implications of their actions. They must be ‘forced’ to think and act for themselves by the repercussions of choices and circumstances.
Independent responsibility forces freedom of choice in a realistic direction. Freedom and choice of course do not always turn out well. With a certain snide pessimism and misanthropy for those they claim to help, advocates of the rights of authority to dictate to citizens notice this fallibility. They seize upon this “evidence” for private, personal and individual incompetence. They insult individuals’ abilities to make wise choices and conduct themselves well, neglecting that planners and supervisors and leaders of government are people also, and not as such fallible or omniscient. (And in addition have their own personal self-interests, agendas and preferences like anyone, maybe far removed from those of citizens they take it upon themselves to oversee.) But the simple realization that every option accessible by choice may not bring productive, profitable, safe or advantageous results only becomes useful in practice, and teaches us by experience to avoid unproductive, unprofitable, dangerous or disadvantageous repercussions in future choices if those who make the choices must also bear them out. Democracy certainly involves repercussions, but not often for those who make choices for other people. And the occasional and very much channeled ‘choices’ of the democratic process are far too hard to learn from, too removed from extended consequences, too intermittent and too impersonal.
Freedom includes responsibility for oneself, and therefore compels people to take care of themselves. By exercising this ability they become more able to perform it. In the end one powerful argument for freedom (and against democracy, or in fact any form of government) is not that freedom coddles people and makes life easy for them; it is that freedom can be hard for them.
But the temptation to escape this exercise, to yield personal freedom-responsibility for some sort of nebulous, collective freedom-responsibility and in practice obtain regimentation and irresponsibility, may remain quite a pronounced inclination to slouch indeed. In conjunction with the other democratic pretensions to freedom noted above, it has given something of an edge to democratic politicians — those who know how to promise much to everyone and pledge their altruism believably. The mechanisms of democracy, primarily in elections, give them the role of superseding individual choice, via the ‘choice’ of ballots and polls. If this were freedom, we should still want no part of it.
There is quite a difference after all between the freedoms of choice and whim. Democracy functions as an enforcement of electoral whim, not considered choices which are supported by ongoing consequences for the one who makes them. Instead democracy imposes the ongoing consequences of officials’ choices on citizens, once they are empowered by citizens’ whim.
Democracy does not mean freedom, if freedom means anything worth choosing.
Part Three Footnotes:
2. In saying “free people” I am taking as an assumption, as almost all people do at some level by now in history, that this condition must indicate freedom for actual individuals, not in some fictional way “the people” as a collective whole. (Though the commonly low grade of that awareness is in a way the essence of the democratic problem. More on the inadequate, inconsistent realization of this under Origins of the Liberal-Democratic Chimaera in Confusion Over Self-Rule.) Effective social freedom can only be evaluated in these empirical terms which are ultimately individual in scope and implications. In order for the idea of “a free people” to be a meaningful and measurable one rather than an empty slogan asserted in political propaganda, it must refer to effectively measurable freedoms of real-life individuals. Since human beings as independent actors are not collective organisms such as ants for whom individuals’ lives mean little compared to the life of the whole group, for them collective ‘freedom’ simply means nothing tangible or experiential — nothing real. I take as the prerequisite for discussion of freedom for a group, a “free people,” that this term acquires significance only by the freedom of component individuals. [back]
4. In the early 18th century, even up to the period of the famous Stamp Tax and other interventions under which the colonists chafed, living in the thirteen American colonies was probably even freer in general from a personal standpoint before the Revolution, depending on the colony in question. [back]
5. Note this point applies to both statutory (legislative) law and the customary or polycentrically-evolved legal systems sometimes touted by freedom advocates, such as English common law or Somali xeer. Both are supposed to reflect the community, if democratic in their operative assumptions, and a community may share a desire for anything at all, including violence. Whatever else a customary law system may offer to improve upon prevalent statutory law systems, customary law does not solve the problem of the tyranny of the majority which may be expressed in cultural preferences which become customary law. [back]
7. That is not to suggest that the political vocabulary of the past was not also sloppy, and often intentionally so. Orwell got hold of a valuable generalization in Politics and the English Language: “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” I merely mean that the beleaguered concept of rights is one of the celebrated social concepts lost in haze and distortion, in modern times. See Commentary on the Complications of Rights and Republics. [back]
8. In further Critiques of Democracy I will continue and expand on the theme of corruption beyond its treatment here and in the previous Critique, including patterns and implications of corruption and decay. [back]
9. This insight occurred to me while reading Yevgeny Zamyatin’s weird, prototypical 20th century dystopian novel We. His troubled protagonist is D-503, a sometimes-dissident, often-rationalizing citizen of the One State and soi-disant cell in the body of We (the common social organism). At one point, falling into his recurring role of apologist for authority as if to say “I am not a free man, I’m a number,” he considers rights with both a mathematical abstraction and sheer political realism: “Even among the ancients, the most mature among them knew that the source of right is might, that right is a function of power. And so, we have the scales: on one side, a gram, on the other a ton; on one side “I,” on the other “We,” the One State. Is it not clear, then, that to assume that the “I” can have some “rights” in relation to the State is exactly like assuming that a gram can balance the scale against the ton? Hence, the division: rights to the ton, duties to the gram. And the natural path from nonentity to greatness is to forget that you are a gram and feel yourself instead a millionth of a ton.” (We p. 115) [back]
10. Others such as freedoms to exchange and trade wealth without interference, or own and use property allodially have long been yielded to the state’s ‘rights’ to tariffs, taxes, intrusive bureaucratic regulation and appropriation under seizure or eminent domain, despite at least some original guarantees in law. (A most important economical freedom, the ability to issue money independently and thus determine value under decentralized, commodified terms was never recognized as a legal right, nor should we expect this to happen.) [back]
11. It is unfortunate that most defenders of freedom and enemies of oppression use the language of “rights”: human rights, individual rights, the right to self-determination, negative rights, positive rights, natural rights, etc. In the context of a political society at least, this language serves us poorly. It often confuses, and it is very susceptible to appropriation by the enemies of freedom because it has ambiguous meaning. (Witness “human rights” which we observe can even a) serve as an effective excuse to start wars, or b) according to the UN, ‘living wage’ advocates, et al., include the likes of a socialist “right to work” or work at a particular wage, although this contradicts freedom of voluntary association and implies confiscation of property). Worst of all, specifying rights plays into the hands of authoritarians. To grant the existence of rights which the government does not have over citizens, or, as those who drafted the American Bill of Rights intended, to specify certain rights held by citizens as part of the larger limitation of government powers in the US Constitution, is to grant also that there are areas which are not citizens’ rights but the state’s. Absent a determination of rights in the hands of officials and bureaucrats and jurists employed by government, people can still access and express an understanding of freedom and individualism (and by extension, property, ownership, responsibility and stewardship) — those desirable concepts which rights advocates only see through the lens of rights. But to discuss rights, is still to expose the fullest freedom to elimination, bit by bit, as negative or positive rights are determined anew in applications over the years. With government’s “right” to name rights, comes the erosion of freedom. [back]
12. Lest this example of Rome appear distant and irrelevant to modern democracies, realize that Roman citizenship provided the original pattern for European and American citizenship, just as the Roman republic, as a celebrated and idealized historical antecedent, provided the prototypical democratic republic for the Western world, and furthermore this model was adopted quite consciously by the neo-classicist founders of the American republic on top of the more immediate British example (a more indirect Roman influence). [back]
13. In much the same way perhaps that Genghis Khan (aka Temujin) is celebrated as the founder of Mongolia despite some inconvenient historical facts, Abraham Lincoln (the founder of the federalized US) is still celebrated and sainted with a great deal of hagiographic myth-making, primarily for “unifying the country” (resorting to the same method as Genghis, incidentally). Lincoln was even posthumously envisioned as a Christ, as the war had been imagined as Armageddon, in the hyper-religious ideology of his time. He has not, presumably, been commemorated on American money and elsewhere for his less advertisable accomplishments, (e.g.) instituting censorship, getting hundreds of thousands killed, or his bizarre schemes to deport American blacks to tropical lands. See articles and the book The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo. [back]
14. Cf. the discussion of Aristotle’s opinions of democracy in Past Alternatives Versus Democracy: Autocracy and Aristocracy. [back]
16. Freedom and choice are by no means the self-evident quanta bandied about in sociopolitical discussions, as evidenced by the confusion over their meanings I discuss in the rest of this section and the rest of this Critique. They are complex and extensible topics. But the discussion of choice here is limited to the social context of outwardly-observable action, conduct, and behavior which is most relevant to democracy and government. Whether, for example, any individual can be said to have had control or “free will” over such an action, or the internal question of why exactly he or she apparently picks one option over another, are questions less relevant here than that he or she would take a given action unless prevented by compulsion or the anticipation of compulsion. For further discussion of freedom and choice see Self-Expression and The Promethean Manifesto. [back]
18. Truly there are endless examples of willing indulgence of censorship from history and modern times, as I trust the reader can investigate independently. At least one concerns others not reading what you are reading. The website on which this Critique appears, Promethea, has been banned inside China along with a great many other significant or informative sites on the global internet. Internet censorship is largely a popular measure in China, from what I have read. At least, one can apparently find many passionate Chinese defenders of the government’s position that it should rightly limit access to contradictory, provocative and dissident speech, both foreign and domestic, in both vocal, printed, and electronic forms. [back]
19. Potentially dangerous substances or inventions might include almost everything, of course. Thus in America, even plastic bags must bear safety warnings! [back]