Critical stands against democracy, when not simply ignored or mechanically rejected as mere fascist outbursts, are usually met with a supposedly wise objection: You may be right, except that you’re targeting an imperfect form of democracy. Thus, Tocqueville never addressed the principle; he decreed democracy would perfect itself as it matured.
This is why I shall not contend that democracy does not work well because some glitches need correction. Democracy does not work because it cannot work, no more than a car without wheels; and it only seems to work because people still practice the ways of predemocratic times. To put it in a nutshell, my point will be that nothing unnatural is viable, and democratic societies, being unnatural ones (as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the pope of democracy, himself confessed), are no exception to the rule.
The most visible characteristic of all things or beings that may be called natural is their everlasting permanence: Either they do not change at all (stones remain stones), or when they do it is only to go back to where they started from. (Dust returns to dust; organisms only grow old to be born again as they keep living in their offspring.) Nature is but the ever-changing guise of immutability. Unbeknownst to many of his fans, even Darwin never claimed one species could evolve into a different one. He merely claimed nature constantly created random variations on the existing ones.
Such permanence is possible only if the components of every natural inanimate thing or animate being somehow behave as if each had a purpose, which is both its own preservation and that of the whole—implying that of the others. In any multicellular living organism each cell somehow seems to know itself to be a part in a bigger whole in which it has a particular role to play. Who can dispute the elementary fact that no man could survive if his stomach somehow decided its exclusive function were not to break down the nutrients it receives into digestible molecules? Or that there would be no life on earth if the sun had not been present to allow it to develop?
In other words, the notion of nature involves three intimately connected but distinct ideas.
First, everything natural is part of something larger, and is therefore ultimately, even though remotely, part of everything else; no particular natural thing or being exists by itself and for itself, even though its primary goal seems to be its own exclusive good.
Second, no natural being or thing is ever absolutely identical to another, since it exists because of its particular usefulness to the whole: There is no uniformity in nature, no equality, only complementarity.
And third, all beings, all things in the universe, since they are only parts of it, are as if somehow bent upon playing their parts and content with being only a part of the whole. This, of course, is a rather metaphorical expression when applied to stones, but becomes more and more apt when considering the continuously increasing capacity for deviance enjoyed by living organisms as their internal structures grow more complex: No animal that is the natural prey of another is known to try to escape his fate except by fleeing or multiplying.
What, then, is nature if not, as has been perceived ever since the first philosopher was born, an intrinsic balance between its parts, a reciprocal adaptation of each to the others, a spontaneous, be it mechanical or instinctive, and not reflexive, sense of measure in each of them, an innate acceptance by each of what each is, the recognition of an order transcending all particular beings—in a word, a harmony, whatever the apparent discordance be, or, as the Greeks used to say, a cosmos? (Even Darwin, who thought of nature in utterly modern terms, declared the goal of all animated beings to be an adaptation to their environment.)
For centuries in the Western world, man himself has been considered not only as part of the general order of nature, but as having thereby a nature of his own, even though too often displaying an uncanny propensity to ignore both. European culture traditionally deemed as a sign of the folly of men that they could ignore the commands of nature and attempt to overcome its laws; the sufferings of man at the hands of nature were not seen as so many proofs nature was a brute force that must be tamed, but as warnings that men had yielded to the hubris of their passions, constantly urging them to violate nature and forget that he who wants to play God will end up acting as a beast.
It was therefore assumed for centuries that the fact of men being endowed with freedom could only mean that, by some mysterious decree of some stupendous and benevolent wisdom, they had been given the privilege and dignity of obeying nature not as a falling stone subjected to the law of gravity or as an animal enslaved to its instincts, but as an intelligent agent capable of comprehending the wisdom of the laws of the universe, and particularly its supreme one: that everything be content with playing a necessary part in the play, and only its part.
This is probably why traditional Western societies display a striking structural similarity, as if they’d spontaneously adopted the same blueprint. They usually comprised clearly differentiated types of citizens, corresponding to clearly differentiated functions fulfilled for the benefit of the whole city, and notably the spiritual, military, and economic ones, the last being itself organized into corporations. There was, therefore, as in any living organism, a hierarchy of functions—an order—but, as it is with all living organisms, it was implicitly expected from all citizens that they recognize the others as necessary to the perfection of the whole, and therefore that they acknowledge the others’ dignity as well as their own, none considering himself an end in himself and for the others, but all serving some same end beyond them all.
Now, all things human are doomed to degenerate, and no human society is perfect (including the traditional ones), but it may be argued that in their mature stage, traditional Western societies reflected the ways nature sets all things to be part of a universal order acceptable to all.
For centuries on end, these attitudes were dominant, and public opinion as well as learned people were of one mind that they could not but be the right ones. But then, not surprisingly, what was to happen one day did happen—civilization receded, because it presupposed effort and tension; and barbarity won, because it was the easy way.
There are two conceptions of human freedom: the traditional and the modern. Both consist in an ability to put distance between oneself and the external world. But, as I have already suggested, the traditional one maintains that such distance is only meant to allow men to contemplate and understand the world they perceive, whereas the modern one sees the same distance as a chance to escape nature’s usual ways, setting men up as free agents, essentially detached from the world they live in (and from themselves as well) and thereby, far from inducing satisfaction with being mere parts of the universe, entitled to consider themselves as its true sovereigns, over and above it. It is indeed true that men as thinking animals have apparently been given a particular place. The question is whether they have been given their capacity for reflective thinking as a sign of a particular dignity—the capacity to understand nature—or as an inducement to deem themselves endowed with a power to lord over nature and treat it as a tool, to be its new makers, rewriters of the Creation. Was men’s capacity for taking a comprehensive view of the world and themselves a grace bestowed on them so that they would not be like puppets in the hands of their Creator, but coadjutors willing to play the part He has assigned to them in His Creation, or an opportunity for them to satisfy not only their natural needs but their hubris as well?
Everything, roughly since the 16th century, looks as if the Western mind had at last yielded to the temptation to play God, as if the hold of civilization over Western man had weakened and waned, while he reveled more and more in what he considered his second birth—his renaissance. Nature having become a mere prejudice, he saw himself as free to recreate the world—including himself—as he pleased, and took human reason not as the voice of his Creator teaching him wisdom, but as a fortunate tool to make a new and more enjoyable world, a world without duties, obligations, or constraints, a world submissive to man’s henceforth essentially hedonistic pursuits, a world he conceived as one in which mankind would at last enjoy total freedom, a freedom called hubris in other times.
Such freedom involved not only domination over the physical world, as well as the invention of a new set of moral principles, but above all the making of a new type of society. Most obviously, the invention of democracy, or the supposed rediscovery of a regime discredited in European minds for almost two millennia, was part of the novus ordo seculorum.
Democracy was then (and still is) explicitly conceived of as the only social system that allowed individuals to live together and nevertheless enjoy either having no particular role to play or having them all, or again having any one they were pleased to play; the only political regime in which each man could be his own exclusive sovereign, but at the same time able to sustain a peaceful relationship with a neighbor endowed with exactly the same unfettered sovereignty. I know equality is the usual catchword for democracy. I rather think it is either a side effect of modern freedom (if one is free, no one has superiors who must be obeyed) or a substitute for modern freedom. (If all are equal, no one must obey anyone and everyone is free, an extremely popular conception ever since the French Revolution under the denomination of socialism.) Why would anyone want equality if not to be enabled to be, to do, to think, to behave as one pleases? Democratic equality means God is dead, and everything is permitted to everyone everywhere at any time.
Freedom, in democratic parlance, begins with the freedom to join the club: Members are supposed to enter not out of yielding to some natural propensity, but out of their free will, and because each member sees his association as useful to him (for instance, to ensure safety in the possession of his belongings). Democracy is a contractual society. But freedom must not stop at the door: Democracy means the sovereignty of the people, and men enter democratic society because each considers himself entitled to be a member of the sovereign people, his own sovereign lawgiver. At first, Western man did not really dare believe he had acquired such freedom. He was still a Christian; he kept up habits and revered customs inherited from an ordered world. But as time passed, his soul became democratic, and today we are given to behold the blessings of the new freedom of which Western man has availed himself: the waning of respect for rules and, generally speaking, respect for others; a devilish propensity to consider it lawful to act as one pleases; the cult of relativism. Democracy being fostered by human hubris, democratic liberty has logically turned out to be what it potentially was: license, the fountainhead of both anarchy and despotism. (The frenzy for regulations, and ever-changing ones at that, only reflects the fear citizens feel for their fellow citizens’ sovereignty as well as their eagerness to impose their own upon the others’.)
This then is, or should be, the Schwerpunkt of the debate about democracy, the field on which the friends and the critics of democracy confront one another: Can democratic freedom be an ordered liberty?
The advocates of democracy are of two kinds. There are the radicals, like the French Jacobins, who maintain it is possible both to be one’s own exclusive sovereign and to stick to an assigned role necessary to an end beyond themselves. And there are the moderate democrats, who do not ignore the contradiction but maintain that democratic freedom can be ordered liberty—i.e., respectful of a social order.
The Jacobins, clever as they may be, cannot prevent their squaring of the circle from being delirious. (They usually end up claiming individuals must be made like clones so that all can be absolutely free together, since they all then behave as one.) As for the moderates, they still have to show how and why an individual—supposed to enter society because one way or another for him it means enjoying the benefits of society while doing only what pleases him—will stop acting as he pleases once in a society he has entered only because it was the best way to acquire the means to do what he pleases. The only reasonable—and standard—answer is that, once he lives close to others, he must realize that one must “do unto others . . . ” or that their “enlightened self-interest” should subdue their hubris. But then it remains to be proved that a rational constraint can breed a moral obligation, or that the average citizen, when assured of impunity, will keep reining in the hubris inherent in his claimed total freedom.
So all in all what happens is that our modern social contractualists are actually like masons attempting to build a skyscraper with pebbles but no cement, or mechanics trying to make an engine run out of parts that do not fit. A contractualist society is meant to introduce some order in the relationships among men, but no one can make an ordered society out of men whose only nature is not to be sociable animals, any more than Doctor Frankenstein could make a viable creature out of disjointed members of dismembered bodies.
Nothing unnatural is viable, and democratic freedom goes against the grain of nature. Democracy will work when democrats realize no city can work whose citizens, according to the blueprint of perfect democracy, only want to be free (or equally free) instead of enjoying only an equal and recognized dignity as a meaningful part of their city. But that means that democracy will work only when democracy ceases to be democratic.
In the meantime, all democracies will be cities ruled by force and ruse, as Machiavelli unwittingly predicted, and all democracies will be the battlefield of tyrannical oligarchies. Only one question will remain: Why does such an unnatural regime (and more and more obviously so, as the remnants of civil behavior and traditional beliefs wane) remain so popular as to be shrouded in sanctity? To which I shall keep answering: to forget there is a nature of things, to be offered individual sovereignty—i.e., to be legitimized in taking advantage of one’s fellow man—even if such sovereignty is rather uncertain and volatile, as it is today in Western democracies, is so tempting to the average mind that one may rather wonder by what miracle mankind has not succumbed to it sooner.