Democracy was born as a protest against what was felt to be an oppression of man by man, a rebellion against some men having the nerve to behave as if they had a natural right to command their fellow men—whether to enslave them, to lead them, or to tell them what to think and believe. Symbolically, democracy was up against traditional monarchy (or aristocracy) and the Catholic Church, prime targets for the defenders of every man’s perfect natural freedom to order his actions and dispose of his person, his possessions, and his thinking as he sees fit, as the not so wise Locke used to say. It was assumed that such oppression had been going on since God knows when—probably since the murder of Abel by Cain. Thus, it was about time for mankind to be born again, for new prophets to call man to a radical uprooting of his traditions, to a complete renewal of relationships among men. It took time for such ideas to coalesce, but eventually they did, and that time was called the Renaissance.
It took roughly two centuries for the Renaissance to bear fruit. Many contributed to the birth of the new kingdom without realizing it. For instance, John Calvin was no democrat, but Calvinists eventually showed themselves not averse to men availing themselves of some competence to set up a city upon a hill. By and by the democratic idea gained momentum, and while Americans tried to claim only their independence from George III, Frenchmen went all the way and executed their king, claiming not only that the people have a right to a say in public affairs, but that they were endowed with sovereignty. Against the oppression of the people by political or spiritual despots, only one answer obtained: The people must replace the local despots (the kings) and the universal despot (the pope).
Which means the people had to assume both temporal and spiritual power; there could be no conceivable power or authority superior to theirs. Even though this much is obvious, there were still a great many who refused, and still do refuse, to see the evidence. Would the people possess true sovereignty if they were obliged to tolerate some particular ideas or to respect some particular creeds, whatever they think of them? Or to regard some particular laws as eternally and universally valid and binding, whatever the circumstances, whatever their feelings, whatever their will? Then there is no beating about the bush: In a democracy there is no real law, because the law is only the will of the people, a will that has no law by itself and may change any time. There are no moral principles, because the good is only what the people say is good. No faith, because the only faith is in a lawless liberty to decree what to believe in. There is no honor, no loyalty, no sense of duty—not because man is a fallible being, but simply because honor and duty depend on what the people think is honorable. There is no beauty, because beauty depends on what the people think is beautiful. (Who has not seen the people declare “beautiful” certain artifacts made to appear ugly?) There is no truth, because the truth is what the people declare to be true. (Isn’t history today rewritten by the people on a regular basis?) There is no respect for man, because citizens respect one another only inasmuch as they have agreed to do so. (Are good manners not disappearing?) There is no sense of what a man should be, because there is no human nature: Since the sum of man’s nature is only to be free, the only thing he can consider to be his nature is what he decides to consider natural for him. (Just think of the so-called gender theory.) There is no nature pure and simple, because the people’s will, using modern science, acts as the creator of all things, the new and only true god. (Think of biological research today.) In a democracy nothing is sacred, because the sacred is merely the ever-changing will of the people.
Setting the people free does not mean much until one knows what is meant by “the people.” “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” is a hollow phrase, for what the deuce is “the people”? Who has ever met such a vague, ghostly ectoplasm? What then gives “the people” content, even sex appeal, is the meaning the average listener is implicitly encouraged to give it: He is “the people”—and, after all, who are the people if not each citizen who makes up the people? The vagueness of the expression the people is precisely what is so appealing to the politician and his clients: to the latter, because every ego among them may feel he is the one who is stooped to, and to the former, because every politician lives by flattering those upon whom he feeds. Is there any flattery more irresistible than to be addressed as a sovereign? Democracy rests upon the more or less secret feeling lying in the heart of the average citizen that he himself is the ultimate ruler. Which is why it is so difficult to uproot faith in the system, whatever its obvious fallacies. Rare are those willing to see through the blatant lie; no one is more blind than he who refuses to see.
Now one of the more obvious consequences, but also one of the more fateful ones, is that the average citizen feels henceforth entitled to maintain his personal opinions, to have his own will, and generally speaking to behave as he thinks fit. Which by definition means to obey his subjective whims: The sovereignty of the people, in the average person’s mind, means the legitimacy of the average citizen to become, all by himself, the measure of all things. Democracy is a regime in which each citizen is essentially an isolated, self-centered island, withdrawn into himself, and therefore in which not the law of reason, but the law of subjectivity reigns supreme. Which is why democracy is so often sentimental: Pity is seeing oneself in a suffering other. Plato used to say a human being comprises three parts: the logos, a yearning to know what things really are; the thumos, which may be considered as a reservoir of energy for action; and the epithumia, the part of man that is beneath his heart, his animal part. One may accordingly define democracy as a regime allowing men to ban within themselves a yearning for any objective reality and devote all their energy to satisfying their irrational desires or passions—desires or passions that are essentially limitless and more demanding on man than on any animal, because the sovereignty of the citizen ultimately means man has no nature but his sovereign freedom. Animals have instincts, whereas democratic man is free to come up with ever-renewed artificial desires. Democracy does not turn men into mere animals; it turns them into depraved animals.
But then democracy faces a very steep wall. For democracy claims to be a society, the perfect one, in which citizens may live together happily ever after. And at the same time democracy declares each man to be endowed with a right to deny there may be any norm preempting his free will. Such a man has no compass left but his bon plaisir (what happens to please him at the moment). The conviction behind democracy is that such an appalling contradiction may be solved by man contracting with man: Democracy is a contractual society, because a contract is the only possible link between two or more liberties that are supposed to be absolute, and therefore essentially foreign to one another, and intent on obeying no one but themselves, even though they live together in society.
Let us insist: A contract is an essentially artificial relationship between two individuals who, before they entered it and became partners, and even after, had, and still have, no natural inclination to enter any (if they were naturally prone to enter it, there would not be any need for contracting), who enter it of their free will (if they were forced to enter it, that would not be a contract), and who therefore have each his own personal reason for joining the club (for if they all had the same motive, there would be no use for a contract).
But then, since the contract can only put some limitation on their freedom, why do creatures so attached to their freedom end up limiting it by getting entangled in a web of contractual rules? There can be little doubt that the raison d’être of a contract is that each party to it suddenly meets a situation in which it appears useful to forfeit something of the complete freedom enjoyed before entering the partnership. Nobody would freely enter such an artificial and inevitably compulsory relationship, unless it were deemed somehow advantageous (whatever the advantage might be for each). There is no way to understand why an individual enjoying a freedom unfettered by any laws or kind of natural obligation (an obligation preexisting the contract) would enter a contractual relationship unless it is, regardless of what it may mean for the other contracting parties, useful to him first. Hence, one may safely conclude that no true society between men can stem from a contract: It is an unnatural relationship between two or more individuals who have no natural propensity to enter it, none of whom have any kind of society with his fellow men, but whose individual interest happens to require it.
Hence the typical behavior of the citizens in a democracy cannot be but constant suspicion of the people to whom they become tied. Since, on every side, each partner is seeking his own exclusive advantage, each partner may be suspected by the others of constantly striving to get the maximum out of the minimum, and all the more suspected as everyone knows that is precisely what he himself is personally doing. And for the same reason, each may be suspected of trying to cheat at every opportunity he may find. Why, indeed, expect anyone to be true to his word if the situation changes, and the terms of the contract become less advantageous? Who can expect sympathy or understanding when the rule of the game is every man for himself, and tough luck for the loser? What kind of respect for the others or moral obligation to the community may prevail upon the individual’s particular interest when the relationship has no other ground than each partner’s personal interest? What kind of gratitude may stem from one’s partners when each is supposed to make the best of the contract? Does anyone show gratitude to the salesman from whom he buys his car?
If a democratic society is such, the following conclusions seem inescapable.
There is a hidden truth at the root of democracy, a truth that the average citizen knows in his heart to be true but that he refuses to acknowledge as the truth. Indeed, a good democrat is that peculiar type of citizen who claims his devotion to the people, but whose only reason for being a citizen is the hope that the whole system will essentially work to his own benefit, and who intimately knows, being one of them, that his fellow citizens are made from the same mold.
So democracy attempts to find a balance between two evils.
At some point democracy thus understood is so close as to be hardly distinguishable from a pure state of nature. One could almost say democracy did not put an end to the so-called state of nature: Democracy invented it. The only difference is that, in the democratic war of all against all, one is supposed to refrain from resorting to open violence. And it remains debatable whether democracy is more desirable than open warring, as it is debatable whether citizens should carry weapons concealed or in open view. The democratic state of nature boasts of having overcome the war of all against all by proclaiming the rights of man, and conversely by denying that any individual has any right over the lives of others. Unfortunately, the result is to deny the right of all men to defend themselves against aggression, whether foreign aggression or domestic violence, which makes the democratic state of nature the paradise of criminals, who rest assured they will never pay the full price for their crimes.
The alternative is hardly more promising. Let us repeat: Democracy may be viewed as a society in which there can be neither trust nor friendship among the citizens, and in which everyone has good reason to be wary of everyone else. Again, the average citizen realizes he is not so keen on obeying the rules he is always eager to accuse others of not respecting, and therefore deserves as much suspicion as any of his fellow citizens. Then one may also conceive of democracy as a society in which there must be a constant monitoring of each citizen’s actions and thoughts, and ideally in which everyone would carefully monitor everyone else (while trying to escape being seen breaking the law). Indeed, we are already facing the paradox of the average citizen always demanding the enforcement of laws he himself is not averse to bending, always demanding new laws to curb the inventiveness of lawbreakers, while protesting against the accumulation of rules he would like to have enforced against the others, and not against himself. It is no happenstance that Jeremy Bentham, who sweated to conceive how best to ensure maximum happiness for the greatest number, was also proud of his blueprint for a penitentiary in which inmates could not lift a finger without being watched. He called it a Panopticon.
For centuries the West had lived as a world where wisdom was mixed with folly, and the evil liberty of some despots was matched by the self-regulated freedom of the many. Democracy was born, and in the name of fighting oppression of man by man, hailed absolute liberty for all: You will be as gods was the implicit promise. It did not take long for such liberty to set men against men, and hardly any longer for all to believe reciprocal surveillance, if not terror, was the only way out of a war of all against all, and for all to condone forceful, ubiquitous constraint exercised by one or more in the name of all. Given by God, freedom is a blessing; contrived by men, a poison. He who wants to play the angel ends up acting the beast.