The Pathos of Politics – The Dream of Democracy

The Dream of Democracy

A democracy is a government in the hands of men of low birth, no property, and vulgar employment. ~ Aristotle

Every revolution has for its beating heart a figment that indispensably inspires those that strive for its success. The men that led the English, American, and French revolutions looked upon democracy as a culmination of man’s struggle for freedom: a vacuous notion with no basis in actuality, as civilization is defined by an entanglement of endeavor, and government an erratic check on freedom (erratic in sanctioning certain inequities while proscribing others).

Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike. ~ Plato

As long as democracy was only a dream, it was impossible to appraise its viability. Discussions of democracy, from Plato to Rousseau and Burke, suffered from a sense of unreality in whether it would work.

In a true sense of the term, there has never been a true democracy, and there never will be. It is contrary to the natural order that the greater number should govern and the smaller number be governed. ~ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in tribute to tribal power via numerics

The majority is the best way, because it is visible, and has strength to make itself obeyed. Yet it is the opinion of the least able. ~ French Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal

Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people. ~ American clergyman Harry Emerson Fosdick

Democracy’s defenders often saw it as a paradise within reach of rational men. Its opponents predicted it would lead to the destruction of society and decent moral values.

Tyranny naturally arises out of democracy. ~ Plato

Various early thrusts toward democracy failed. The Puritan Revolution in the 1640s (aka English Civil War) had a democratic inspiration but crumpled back to monarchy. 4 decades later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 established an active parliament, albeit aristocratic rather than democratic.

18th-century England welcomed liberal aristocrats like Montesquieu, but had no room for radical democrats like Tom Paine, who had to flee his native land after defending the French Revolution against its assault by Edmund Burke.

The French Revolution, which began with little violence in 1789, ceased its ersatz democratic experiment a decade later when Napoléon established a military dictatorship on the way to rolling his own brand of monarchy.

Napoléon’s 1814 abdication led to the reactionary rule of the Bourbons, who attempted a reversion to kingship by divine right via alliance with the clergy and aristocracy. That monarchial exercise ended with the July Revolution of 1830, establishing a constitutional monarchy that secured sociopolitical ascendancy for the bourgeoisie (upper middle class). That at least opened the way for popular government.

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A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where 51% of the people may take away the rights of the other 49. ~ Thomas Jefferson

America’s founding fathers sought to temper majority rule by distorting its representational power: awkwardly aiming at a ruling class a cut above the common man by making land more important than people in the upper house of the legislature (the senate), and by indirect election of the president: with votes going to electors of the party a candidate is in, not the candidate himself. Thus, the United States was designed as a diluted democracy.

If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it. ~ Mark Twain

Distrust is the marrow in the body of democracy. It runs both ways. Politicians are always wary of the public’s capacity for comprehension. Conversely, citizens’ confidence in politicians’ competence is ever shaky.

This picture of the blind leading the blind is an apt portrait of the Collective. It certainly is no advertisement that democracy is a sensible political system.

(The Collective are the great mass of humanity, unwashed of ignorance and often bereft of moral virtue.)

Alex de Tocqueville

The main evil of the present democratic institutions of the United States does not arise, from their weakness, but from their overpowering strength. I am not so much alarmed at the excessive liberty which reigns in that country, as at the very inadequate securities which exist against tyranny. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

French political scientist, historian, and politician Alex de Tocqueville (1805–1859) had a liberal aristocratic background. He spent 9 months in the United States (1831–1832), ostensibly to study its prisons. From that experience de Tocqueville wrote a keen analysis of the vitality, excesses, and potential of American democracy.

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville’s 2-volume Democracy in America (1835, 1840) was a seminal work of sociology and political science; an impressively prescient accomplishment for a man barely 30 years old when the 1st volume was published. His thematic intent – that a properly organized society could retain liberty in a democracy – became flotsam in what he found.

The taste which men have for liberty, and that which they feel for equality, are, in fact, 2 different things; and I am not afraid to add, that, among democratic nations, they are 2 unequal things. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville understood that the federalism upon which America’s founding fathers had hoped would lend itself to largely local control was contradicted by democratic forces, which tended toward centralization.

Almost all the able and ambitious members of a democratic community will labour without ceasing to extend the powers of government, because they all hope at some time or other to wield those powers. It is a waste of time to attempt to prove to them that extreme centralization may be injurious to the State, since they are centralizing for their own benefit. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

de Tocqueville noted the paradoxical lust for and resentment of power in a democratic system. This is reflected today in the low opinion the public has of government; the very same public that constantly lobbies to siphon as much leverage and largesse out of the government that it can.

Democratic nations often hate those in whose hands the central power is vested; but they always love that power itself. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

The most chilling foretelling by de Tocqueville was the nascent socioeconomic inequality which he witnessed under the American political system.

Not only are the rich not compactly united among themselves, but there is no real bond between them and the poor. The poor have few means of escaping from their condition and becoming rich.

The manufacturer asks nothing of the workman but his labour; the workman expects nothing from him but his wages. The one contracts no obligation to protect, nor the other to defend; and they are not permanently connected either by habit or by duty.

The territorial aristocracy of former ages was either bound by law, or thought itself bound by usage, to come to the relief of its serving-men, and to succor their distresses. But the manufacturing aristocracy of our age first impoverishes and debases the men who serve it, and then abandons them to be supported by the charity of the public. This is a natural consequence of what has been said before. Between the workman and the master there are frequent relations, but no real partnership.

The manufacturing aristocracy which is growing up under our eyes, is one of the harshest which ever existed in the world. If ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate into the world, it may be predicted that this is the channel by which they will enter. ~ Alex de Tocqueville

Despite this, de Tocqueville could not betray his liberal heart. He retained an unsupported optimism that the world of man was perfectible, and that democracy was the instrumental polity by which such perfection may be attained. As history has shown, his apprehensions were truer than his hopes.

I am full of apprehensions and of hopes. I perceive mighty dangers which it is possible to ward off – mighty evils which may be avoided or alleviated; and I cling with a firmer hold to the belief, that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous they require but to will it. ~ Alex de Tocqueville


A healthy democracy requires a decent society; it requires that we are honorable, generous, tolerant, and respectful. ~ American jurist Charles Pickering

Democracy relies upon a common decency and wisdom: the very thing that has been the greatest concern to political theorists, as to whether these virtues were sufficiently abundant in the populace.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. ~ American scholar H.L. Mencken

Most apparent about democracy is that its quality invariably reflects its participants. The recommended remedy has been to raise the consciousness of the citizenry.

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome direction, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Practically, democracy has always been a package deal. Its vitality has always depended upon an educated populace, which has also been key to economic prosperity.

Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day. ~ Thomas Jefferson

Yet, in most democratic countries, education has not been esteemed in a way commensurate with its essentiality to either political or economic well-being. This is one of democracy’s great failings: to leave too fallow the fields of human minds upon which reasonable success for the polity depends.

It as if democracy’s soul is not understood by those responsible for its keep: an inscrutable ignorance of history, and proof that common sense is uncommon, even in those granted power to rule.

Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. ~ Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw

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Democracy rests upon 2 pillars: one, the principle that all men are equally entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and the other, the conviction that such equal opportunity will most advance civilization. ~ American jurist Louis Brandeis

From a societal standpoint, the dream of democracy has never been realized, nor was it ever realistic. For most people, material constraints shackle liberty and hamper the pursuit of happiness.

Only with material equality, or at least equal opportunity, not simply equal treatment under the law, can liberty be equally pursued by all. Yet very few modern men would call compulsory sharing of resources individual liberty.

It is a strange fact that freedom and equality, the two basic ideas of democracy, are to some extent contradictory. Logically considered, freedom and equality are mutually exclusive, just as society and the individual are mutually exclusive. ~ German social critic Thomas Mann

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Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy. ~ Benito Mussolini

John Stuart Mill

The general tendency of things throughout the world is to render mediocrity the ascendant power among mankind. ~ John Stuart Mill

English philosopher, politician, and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) was an exponent of utilitarianism. He updated Bentham’s utilitarianism by taking into account individuality, human sociality, and altruism, and in emphasizing the importance of impartiality in justice.

The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercise over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. ~ John Stuart Mill

Mill’s book On Liberty (1859) was well received and very influential, owing in no small part to his lucid prose. The book’s thrust was to establish standards for balancing authority with liberty.

The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people. ~ John Stuart Mill

Mill defended free speech and the right of individuality. Unlike many contemporary liberals, Mill championed women’s rights, seeing sexual inequality as untenable, both ethically and legally.

The most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power. ~ John Stuart Mill

Mill conceived that the purpose of the law was to maximize liberty, as it opened the opportunity for “self-realization.” Mill distinguished between the public sphere, regulated by law, and the private sphere, governed by morality.

English political scientist Ernest Barker called Mill “a prophet of an empty liberty and an abstract individual.” Mill’s absolutist statements about liberty jarred with his practical prescriptions of welfarism, such as compulsory education, and the need to regulate business and industry in the public interest.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

The downfall and death of societies are due to the power of accumulation possessed by property. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

French philosopher Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a libertarian socialist, as contrasted to the authoritarian Karl Marx. Proudhon was the first person to declare himself an anarchist and was one of anarchy’s most influential theorists.

All men are equal and free: society by nature, and destination, is therefore autonomous and ungovernable. If the sphere of activity of each citizen is determined by the natural division of work and by the choice he makes of a profession, if the social functions are combined in such a way as to produce a harmonious effect, order results from the free activity of all men; there is no government. Whoever puts a hand on me to govern me is an usurper and a tyrant. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Anarchy is generally considered a societal dynamic of not recognizing authority: basically, being leaderless. Proudhon used the term, but what he meant by it was anarchism: a stateless society comprised of voluntary associations; in essence, cooperative communities without an overarching nation-state.

Proudhon channeled Godwin in a more sophisticated form, without the irrational contempt for cooperation.

To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon is best known for his tart riposte “property is theft,” but that was something of an overstatement. (Despite the long-winded quote above, Proudhon had a predilection for pithy catchphrases.) Proudhon’s condemnation of property was specific to exploitation.

The possessions of the rich are stolen property. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon believed that people should possess the fruits of their labors. His criticism of communism was that it destroyed freedom by taking away control of production from individuals.

Communism is inequality, but not as property is. Property is exploitation of the weak by the strong. Communism is exploitation of the strong by the weak. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

Proudhon’s take on representative democracy was a knowing echo of Plato: that democracy was a slippery slope to tyranny.

All parties without exception, when they seek for power, are varieties of absolutism. ~ Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

France was reactionary in the 1840s; the wrong time to be rabble-rousing. Proudhon was put in the dock in 1842 for his radical publications. He escaped conviction only because the jury could not understand his arguments, and therefore could not condemn them or him.

Though Proudhon sympathized with the goals that provoked insurrections in France during his life, he was a devout pacifist, rejecting violence as a means to any end.

Karl Marx

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Every class struggle is a political struggle. ~ Karl Marx

German economist, historian, and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883) lived during a pivotal juncture in human history and carried the consequence of its modern vector to a logical conclusion.

Man’s ideas, views, and conceptions, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations, and in his social life. ~ Karl Marx

A significant paradigmatic shift in political philosophy occurred in the late 17th century. The traditional cast of political order based upon scarcity was supplanted by an appreciative assumption of abundance.

The poverty which once appeared as natural became viewed as man-made, and hence solvable. The rise of industrial production made prosperity for all a sanguine prospect. But the world was not working out that way. The “universal opulence” which Adam Smith envisioned was nowhere on the horizon.

Political economy came into being as a natural result of the expansion of trade, and with its appearance elementary, unscientific huckstering was replaced by a developed system of licensed fraud, an entire science of enrichment. ~ Karl Marx

Liberal theorists insisted that poverty could be obviated by economic growth, which would percolate downwards and raise standards of living. Despite the potentiality of a decent life for all, liberalism looked positively Hobbesian in its consequence for the lower classes, as exploitation went largely unchecked.

The man who possess no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men, who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission. ~ Karl Marx

The term socialism was coined in the 1830s, but it had ancient roots. Bible passages inspired the Hutterites in the 16th century to forsake materialism as a moral value.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had. ~ Acts 2:32, The Bible

In the Republic, Plato sketched a utopian socialist society.

Socialism was termed utopianism by English humanist Thomas More in his novel Utopia (1516), about an ideal communal society on a fictional island in the Atlantic Ocean.

If honor were profitable, everybody would be honorable. ~ Thomas More

There were over 40 utopian-themed novels during the Age of Enlightenment, as people became embittered about the rampant social injustices of the time.

In the late 18th century, French revolutionary and political philosopher Francois Noël Babeuf published proposals for a communist society without private property and a guaranteed livelihood for all.

Babeuf urged revolution to achieve his dream. In 1796, Babeuf and his followers plotted to overthrow the government that had installed itself after the French Revolution of 1789. The plan, known as the Conspiracy of Equals, was betrayed to the government (the Directory), which duly guillotined Babeuf in 1797. Though Babeuf lost his head, his spirit reincarnated in Marx.

The deepening inequities and egregious exploitation that occurred during the Industrial Revolution spurred socialist ideals among impoverished workers and prompted the creation of communes in both Europe and the United States that served as sanctuaries from the harsh reality of capitalism.

Marx dubbed the socialists who preceded him as “utopians” for their emphasis on social harmony and non-revolutionary politics. He nevertheless picked up precisely where they had left off, particularly Babeuf.

Incipient socialists articulated the ideal of material equality through a planned economy, emphasizing public well-being over profit. They denigrated capitalism as a wasteful and inefficient system that produced as externalities unemployment, poverty, and squalor.

Capitalism’s culture made people selfish, acquisitive, and ruthlessly competitive, draining them of their innate instincts for compassion and solidarity. Socialists’ critique of capitalism was both moral and practical.

Early socialists wrote at a time when the course of capitalist evolution was unclear. Marx had the advantage of having seen its further development.

Capitalist production develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth: the soil and the labourer. ~ Karl Marx

No one before Marx saw as clearly the intimate relationship between private ownership of capital and political power. Nor did others appreciate how societally corrosive that power was.

Marx’s revolutionary inclinations were grounded in his disgust of men as oppressors of other men. His polity ideal was of practical equality.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the living. ~ Karl Marx

Marx understood that history is always under the sway of ideas, and that the concepts controlling social discourse were those of the overclass. Hence, the main obstacle to be overcome was the societal worldview that upheld the status quo.

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, that is, the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. ~ Karl Marx

Marx never explicitly stated that the destruction of capitalism was inevitable because of the class conflict it created between those with capital and those without. Certainly Marx thought that the depravity of unrelenting exploitation and periodic economic depressions that characterized capitalism carried the seeds for revolution. He wished, but did not predict, capitalism’s demise.

Intrinsically, it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity toward inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed the image of its own future. ~ Karl Marx

Marx’s reference to “inevitable results” was not about revolution, but to how capitalism works.

Marx distinguished between the solidarity of socialism and state capitalism, where the state owned the means of production. Marx anticipated the ruse that Lenin and later Communists promoted, where the oppression of private capitalism was replaced by that of the state.

Earlier economists lacked sufficient experience of modern capitalism to analyze its intricacies as well as Marx was able to. Similarly, Marx did not foresee political-economic dynamics which would preclude revolution.

Marx underestimated the fecundity of capitalism in producing a middle class that struggles with aspiration, and so both succors and supports the system this is the source of its struggle. He also overestimated the ability of the lower classes to revolt against a plutocrat police state, which the moneyed overclass invariably puts into place to insure their investment.