Of all tyrannies a people’s government is the most excruciating, the most spiritless, unconditionally the downfall of everything great and sublime. A tyrant is still a human being or an individual… But in a people’s government who is the ruler? An X or the everlasting blether: whatever at any moment either is or has the majority — the most insane of all determinants. When one knows how majorities are come by and how they can fluctuate, then to let this nonsense be what governs! There is no-one anywhere, and that is why there is error everywhere.
Get it through your head that it’s forbidden for anyone to be responsible in a democratic society. Because only in that way can the masses be protected from having to face up to the unhappiness on earth.
There are three kinds of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People… Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.
…it is evident that as the people slowly become aware of their own interests and the variety of those interests increases, the representative system reveals itself to be inadequate. This is the reason why democrats of all lands bustle around searching for palliatives and correctives that they never find. They try referendum and discover it is worthless; they babble about proportional representation, representation of minorities and other utopias. In other words, they seek the impossible, namely a method of delegation that represents the infinite variety of interest of a nation; but they are forced to admit that they are on a false road, and faith in representative government vanishes little by little.
Those who have lived among savage or barbarous peoples in several parts of the world have related how they have attended native councils, where matters in which they were interested were being discussed. When, after a time, the English observer found that the people were discussing some wholly different topic, and inquired when they were going to decide the question in which he was interested, he was told that it had already been decided and they had passed on to other business… The members of the council had become aware, at a certain point, that they were in agreement, and it was not necessary to bring the agreement explicitly to notice.
Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men.
Henry David Thoreau
The welfare of many countries is decided by a majority of votes, even though everyone admits there are more wicked men than good ones.
What is this law of the greatest number which modern governments invoke and in which they claim to find their sole justification? It is simply the law of matter and brute force, the same law by which a mass, carried down by its weight, crushes everything that lies in its track.
The more I see of democracy the more I dislike it. It just brings everything down to the mere vulgar level of wages and prices, electric light and water closets, and nothing else.
BEWARE OF GREEKS BEARING GIFTS
- The Ancient Greeks were misogynist, insanely hyper-rational, deeply hostile to nature, art and children. They were a civilised — which is to say domesticated — people.
- The ‘mainstream’ media is fundamentally capitalist, pornographic, institutionalised and subservient to power. It is a civilised — which is to say domesticating — technology.
It follows that any invention, technique or concept invented by the latter and exalted by the former is, at the very least, suspicious. Examples include science, money, the Olympic games, modern philosophy and, above all, democracy.
Democracy, as definition 6 intends to remind us, is not always and forever completely useless and, in context, can, like other widely-praised Greek inventions, very occasionally serve a useful purpose. In some situations a debate and a vote is the fairest and quickest way to erase that perennial wail of anguish; ‘what on earth are we going to do?’ In addition, ordinary people, given the ‘democratic’ chance to freely make meaningful and informed decisions, can, every now and then, be counted on to choose more equality, fewer illegal wars and less power passed into the hands of unaccountable corporate control. Does this therefore mean that basing an entire society, on the principles of ‘dictatorship of the 51%’ is sane, fair, peaceful and non-coercive? Unlikely…
LOVE IS UNDEMOCRATIC
The assumption that we must organise society democratically is based, amongst other things, on the prior assumption that there is no alternative that has ever worked, which is demonstrably false. Pre-historical societies — which is to say the dominant mode of life for 90% of human pre-history — along with various modes of social life over the past 10,000 years — worked extremely well without recourse to a vote, or to any kind of manifest consensus.
I say manifest because some kind of consensus is obviously essential for groups to function, but there is not only no need for consensus to be explicit (the foundation of democracy; spoken assent, counted ballots and whatnot), such a requirement inevitably makes organs of democracy and the society it represents, contentious, time-consuming and riddled with debilitating compromise. Again, this isn’t to say that it is not sometimes necessary to thrash it out, but in well-functioning societies, such occasions are rare or non-existent.
Take, as an example of a ‘well-functioning society’, a group of friends spending the day together. How often do you sit round and debate what you are going to do, and then take a vote? Perhaps once or twice, but, most likely, not at all. You go where you are going, do what you are doing and then go off and do something else with barely a democratic word uttered. And even when there is a vote, a sense of cooperation, rather than competition, predominates, along with a sense that passion, integrity, wisdom, love, the needs of the moment and the right thing to do must be integral, primary, in the decision making process, and can overturn a mere numerical advantage.
Isn’t this the case, with you and your fellows?
Or do you find yourself surrounded by people who are out for themselves and refuse to do what is best for everyone? Or people who cannot perceive unspoken nuances and implicit suggestions and need to argue everything out? Or people who are anxious, confused, weird and lazy and make bizarre or unfair decisions? Or maybe you’re in a group dominated by one or two ‘strong personalities’? Or maybe nobody really cares? Or maybe nobody is really listening to each other; or just listening to cue themselves up for their own little speech? Or perhaps consensus is running up against money — someone has more of it than someone else, or nobody has any and nothing can be done? Or maybe reaching a decision has run into the thorny forest of power relations — one member of the group is the boss, or famous, or good-looking, or has the car? Or maybe there are unspoken allegiances threading through the group which make consensus impossible or chronically compromised? Or perhaps the unspoken landscape of the group is riddled with psychological mines — a wrong word, a wrong look even, can trigger conflicts or sulks?
Any of this sound familiar? Do you support democracy under these conditions?
IF DEMOCRACY IS WORKING, THERE IS NO NEED FOR DEMOCRACY
- Yes, we had a vote and we’ve decided to elect Margaret Thatcher — it means that everything you value about your country is about to be shit on, but there’s nothing you can do about it, because you live in a democracy.
- This is an announcement; the entire crew of the Titanic has voted to plough into the iceberg — don’t bother complaining, it’s a democracy.
- I’m sorry, we’ve had a vote and we’ve decided we’re going to eat you. You can’t argue against it, because it’s democracy.
Oh I see, so democracy only works if everyone is sane does it?
But if everyone is sane, why do we need to vote?1
Democracy is evidently impossible amongst the insane. And if you are among the insane are you going to put any meaningful decision to the vote? Are you going to allow nine lunatics to determine what you, the tenth, do? If so, I put it to you that you are a coward (or at work).
Nobody accepts democratic decisions they don’t like, or willingly consents to being in a democracy made up primarily of people they don’t trust — or, in the case of power, that they can’t manipulate — unless they want to blame them for the outcome.
The question remains, are people, on the whole sane? Are more than 51% of society cheerful, perceptive, capable — even when informed — of making selfless decisions? Ask Socrates.
DEMOCRACY IS ILLEGAL
- Okay, mum, me and my sister have voted to spend all day exploring the neighbourhood.
- Okay, teacher, the class has voted to go home, forever.
- Okay, boss, the workforce have voted to appropriate the factory, divide up its profits between us and integrate it into a genuinely free society.
- Okay, captain, me and the boys have voted not to kill anyone any more, we just don’t like doing it.
- Okay, Prime Minister, the North of England have voted to secede from the UK.
No, I’m afraid democracy doesn’t work like that. You can only vote on things which we decide you can vote on. That’s democracy. You put your little cross on the paper there, every four years, and then you sit back and watch democracy on teevee. Get it?
Oh you believe in democracy do you professor? Is your faculty democratic? Your class? The company that publishes your books? The newspaper that prints your articles? The hospital that takes care of your sick mother? What about the classical music concerts you listen to, or the films you watch, or even the games of football? Democratic are they? No, so how about you offer some solid defence of this democracy that you won’t touch with a barge-pole? Or are you well aware that in the entire history of human thought nothing but the most feeble justifications have ever been presented?
THE EVERLASTING BLETHER
As Barry Long, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche pointed out, Democracy is actually the least responsible political systems ever devised. Take Grenfell Tower. Or the Iraq War. Or the bleaching of the coral reefs. Who’s to blame? The governments? The people who voted for them? The councils? The corporations? The people who work for them? The army generals? The guys who pull the triggers? The people who consume petrochemical products? The bankers? The media? Who? Ask these people — are you responsible? What do they say?
Democracy shifts responsibility onto a larger and larger mass until it evaporates like a cloud. Puff! There it goes. And then see what happens if someone does take responsibility. See how they are treated by the free people of the shining democracy.
PLUS ÇA CHANGE
I say ‘larger and larger’ mass, but actually, how many people are allowed to vote? Children? The ‘insane’? The incarcerated? Immigrants? Nope. And how many of those who can vote have votes which actually count, which are not in marginal seats? By the time you count up the meaningful votes you’re left with a minority about the size of — well, yes, about the size of a princely elite.
DEATH BY DEMOCRACY
The number of people receptive to the unconditional truth is microscopically small. The vast majority reject great art, acute philosophy and original teachings near enough instantly, certainly without profound reflection. What happens then when that truth depends on a numerically large audience — bums on seats — in order to survive and spread? What happens when profit, success, mass-appeal or the party-line determine whether books, films and works of art get made? What happens when democratic upvotes, democratic retweets and democratic shares determine what can be seen in discussion forums? What happens when writers and artists depend on donations from their democratic fans in order to keep on producing work?
What happens, obviously, is that the truth — artistic truth, philosophic truth, transcendental truth — dies. It is killed by democracy. Quality, spontaneity and sensitivity to the context are too subtle, too strange and too difficult to control, and so the mass-mind will either ignore or crush them. Try telling the truth to a large crowd of people, see where it democratically gets you.
Democracy is impossible within the institutions that create, and are created by, selfish people. The self-informed-self inevitably shapes the world into an image of itself comprised of violent, atomised, anxious individuals, a prisonworld which automatically deprives its inmates of the dark, wild, uncertain, harmonious mystery of wild nature and the creative, generous, sensitive, integrity and dignity of human nature; and then asks them to vote on matters of importance. Imagine, for a moment, that a candidate appeared on the ballot who proposed to seriously dismantle this prison, to head towards a moneyless world, to unpick the laws that protect inequality and property, to free us from the monolithic hold that technocracy has over society, to make the wild a meaningful part of our lives, to deschool society, disable professions and return the tools of health to the people… such a candidate would be unlikely to defeat Lord Buckethead.
And even if he was voted in, what could he do? Only someone who does not understand how the technocratic system operates could believe that a good man (and there are one or two who occasionally make it onto the ballot — we had Jeremy Corbyn for example, here in the UK) could make anything but the tiniest reformist changes to it. Or — no, that’s not true — those who don’t understand how the system operates are not alone in their fantastic belief in the power of a mythical ‘fair government’. They are joined by those who understand the system perfectly.
THE SYSTEM CHOSE DEMOCRACY
One idea, popular amongst supporters of democracy, is that it is the fairest way to organise society and was, therefore, freely chosen by fair-minded people. This is not true. Democracy was ‘chosen’ for the same reason that the scientific method was ‘chosen’ — because it serves the developed system. By ‘scientific method’ I am here referring to the vision of Francis Bacon, in which the world becomes a society of technicians, each human-unit working away at his or her little task or project, contributing his tiny pellet of specialised activity to the mechanised whole. By working away at the isolated bits of experience and fitting them into a factual-causal whole, the genius of the individual is sacrificed to the utilitarian efficacy of the whole. This is how scientific endeavour is supposed to work and, closely allied with it, this is how society is supposed to work, which is why democracy arose with the advanced industrial system. We were no longer to be governed by erratic rulers, much less by the erratic free instinct of free men and women, but by a rationally-managed mass, voting for whoever or whatever is most likely to provide utilitarian security.
England, the first country to adopt modern democracy became so powerful that, just as every other country was forced to adopt its technologies, so they were forced to adopt its political system. This is why democracy spread around the world — not because it is fair, or because it serves men and women. Quite the contrary, it serves and can only serve the machine world. Democracy is a rational-mechanistic process of ‘counting up’ judgements, transforming individual creativity and collective responsibility into a kind of moral calculus. Occasionally it serves individuals, just as the wider technocratic system occasionally does, but only if, in so serving, it is also serving itself. As soon as individuals become a threat to the system, they are abandoned; just so, as soon as democracy ceases to serve the system, it too will be — is being — abandoned. Then of course we’ll have people nostalgically looking back to the good old days of democracy.
(Summer 2019 edit) Extinction Rebellion and affiliated associations are currently calling for citizen’s assemblies, based on ‘sortition’, a form of democracy in which ordinary people are selected at random (with a fair distribution of age, gender, social-class, and so on). This was, they proudly tell us, the system used in classical Athens (although slaves, foreigners, children and women couldn’t vote, and it was deliberately designed to augment the power of what today we’d call ‘the upper middle class’ — but nevermind all that) and therefore, it is claimed, an original and wonderfully pure form of democracy.
Although clearly such a form of democracy would lead to greater equity and more intelligent decision-making than the ludicrous bullshit that currently goes by the name, it suffers from the same essential problems as all democracies. It still relies on;
- A majority (even a ‘super-majority’ — 60%? 70%? it doesn’t matter) telling a minority what to do, thus relying on violence (the minority still need to be compelled).
- The deferment of responsibility (‘I didn’t decide, those random fools did!’) along with guaranteed apathy amongst those not chosen.
- The necessity of a debilitating bureaucracy (XR mentions the need for Coordinating Groups, Advisory Boards, Expert/Stakeholder Panels, Facilitation Teams, Oversight Panels and, of course, the secular heavenly host we know as professional experts) to manage this marvellous new system; a Kafkaesque bureaucracy into which those adept at manipulating information will inevitably gain power and from which those who value function over form — the working classes — will inevitably be excluded.
- Debilitating groupthink which will (even aside from its inevitable integration with the institutions of civilisation) dissipate genuinely radical action (which must be subordinated to the democratic group), etiolate passion (how much passion can you feel for the lesser of two evils?) and reproduce mediocrity (which consensus always tends towards).
And it is still, needless to say, embedded in the wider, mind-bogglingly complex, semi-autonomous technocratic system, comprised of hyper-developed interlocking sub-systems (extraction, supply, transport, delivery, marketing, propaganda, security, etc, etc.), none of which can be meaningfully altered without catastrophically disrupting the entire thing. No democracy, no matter how fair, can do anything more than tinker with an advanced industrial system or make cosmetic changes to it. It is impossible.
The sortition majority is nominally better informed (in the sense that it has more access to facts), theoretically more difficult to corrupt and appears to be more equitable than the ludicrous democracy we have today, but any serious consideration of how it would actually work, embedded in the global technocratic system we have, leads inevitably to grave doubts which XR don’t even pretend to address.
Could a citizen’s assembly really produce responses based on a radical critique of civilisation (rather than just capitalism)? Could it actually free individuals from their domesticated servitude? Could it really overthrow the entire system? Move in the opposite direction to technological progress? Demand the kind of genuinely radical mass-sacrifices a sane society actually needs to function? Completely overcome established power? Disentangle human beings from institutional control and from an insane hyper-capitalist international supply-system? Dismantle professions, deschool society, circumvent management? Strike at the egoic root of the system? And do all this everywhere, not just in small powerless states like Iceland, Taiwan and Ireland; and instantly — within a decade?
How, for example, is the citizen’s assembly, that Extinction Rebellion propose, going to disband the military? How is it going to radically redistribute wealth; i.e. take land away from those who have owned it for centuries? How is it going to force people to stop using cars, computers, batteries, plastics (and all the other many, many products produced from petrochemicals) and stop eating meat? How is it going to return the world (or even one small country, like the UK) to a tenth-century economy, meaningfully integrated with the wilderness? Not too many answers are forthcoming to these questions, because of course they aren’t being asked.
What extinction rebellion is asking for is ‘for the government to act’, ‘for the government to listen to them,’ for middle-class professionals to organise institutions better, for professional experts to have more power and for non-renewables and new technologies to basically keep things as they are, except more like an episode of Star Trek. They’re also asking for net-zero carbon emissions, which doesn’t mean halting the market at all; it means engaging in other profitable activities to ‘offset’ current emission.
As usual, if it’s in the news, it’s besides the point.
See Be careful what you rebel for: OK Doomer and climate ‘mobilization’ by Karen Goaman
See The Devil is in the Details: A Closer Look at Extinction Rebellion by Luke Dodson
For my solution to the above questions — those that extinction rebellion cannot answer — see Anarchism at the End of the world.
For further discussion of democracy see myth 16 of 33 Myths of the System (which concludes with the anarchism essay).
- ‘Democracy only works when everyone is happy, well-informed, free… etc, etc’. In other words; democracy only works when there is no need for democracy.
- This link goes to an article that is very poorly written and packed full of claims I have neither the time nor the interest to check; but the basic point, that the corporate world have, or are seeking to get, their fingers all over Thunberg is worth taking seriously.