Since 1945, democracy’s reputation has climbed so high that, by the beginning of the 21st century, democracy itself had become nothing short of an idol throughout much of the world. This makes it difficult to imagine a time when democracy was widely regarded by political philosophers, writers, and artists not as the best but rather the worst form of government. Yet that was the prevailing opinion from ancient times down to the end of World War II, when the victory of the “democratic” Allies over the criminal regimes of Europe seemed to vindicate democracy’s claims not only in absolute terms but in relative ones as well. The modern world appeared to offer two stark political alternatives: democracy or totalitarianism—which, for civilized peoples, was no choice at all. For the next 50 or 60 years, democracy was unchallenged outside a minority circle of new leftists and unrepentant old ones. Beyond that circle, everyone—liberals, soft radicals, even “conservatives”—shared in the democratic consensus on behalf of “freedom,” “equality,” universal suffrage, “rights,” and most of the other benefits of liberal industrial capitalism, acclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in the early 90’s as the ultimate and unimprovable social, economic, and political ideal. Thus, when I began reading up several years ago for a book on democracy, I was more than surprised to discover how many writers in the past 20 years have reconsidered the strengths, and questioned the claims, of democratic government and democratic society itself. Indeed, had I known that so voluminous a body of skeptical and often antidemocratic literature existed, I might have been discouraged from contributing to the literature myself.
More recently, this skepticism regarding existing democratic governments has spread beyond the private study and the academy into the great democratic publics of the West, which have begun to question whether the democratic regimes that currently govern them are capable of governing anything else, the economy especially. The so-called Great Recession in the United States and Europe, and now economic and political crisis in the European Union, have contributed greatly to their concern and disaffection, but they are not the cause of this generalized discontent, which preceded them in a more diffuse and inchoate form that was often, at bottom, not strictly political at all.
Naturally, the popular response to crisis and unease is to demand that governments, and the “experts” who advise politicians and officeholders, do something about these things. Usually, the demand for action is accompanied by a call for “change”—often made, as in the case of Barack Obama during the presidential election of 2008, by the politicians themselves, ever willing to exploit the popular perception that the conditions of life under democracy should be not only satisfactory but perfectly comported with the needs and wants of its citizens; that a pragmatic government ruled and managed by social scientists and other scientific experts is capable of creating utopia, if only it has the selfless determination to do so; and that “change,” if it is honest and real instead of cynical and bogus, must always be for the better in a democratic society, which, being theoretically informed and determined by the will of the majority, will naturally proceed, without chronological deviation, from good to better to best, no pause or setback possible. If utopia remains out of reach, the reason is simply that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and that the government, or at least its officials, want replacement.
Before the 1920’s, when the advertising industry as we know it today was invented, advertising meant what the dictionary defines as “the action of calling something to the attention of the public esp. by paid announcements . . . ” Over the past century, however, advertising has progressively become the attempt by advertisers to change the public’s perception of the world, of its collective self, and of its individual needs by presenting a false reality, a false sense of self, and a false sense of needs and of self-gratification, all of them aimed at creating false expectations of a public as well as a personal sort. Lack of imagination, mental sloth, moral disregard, and general uninterest ensured that the consequences of this expectative increase at the public and private levels of society went unforeseen. (Even if they had been, influence exerted by the advertising industry would have been sufficient to suppress whatever considerations or scruples might have occurred to anybody.) The success or failure of democratic government depends on the degree to which an accurate apprehension of reality and of human possibility and its limits exists in the public mind, and modern advertising for the past hundred years has done its damndest to subvert reality and replace it with a carefully fabricated illusion that denies any limit to achievement in the political sphere and to self-gratification in the personal one. So political platforms and programs, slogans, promises, and sound bites have been marketed like toothpaste, automobiles, cellphone service, beer, and sex, and democracy reduced from a system for preserving fundamental liberties for virtuous citizens to a factory dedicated to the uninterrupted production of goods, economic security, and benefits for a mass of insatiable and irresponsible constituents, to which end every other function of government (diplomacy, defense, national security, and so forth) is simply a means.
The democratic assurance that collective free will makes effective collective action a realizable possibility underlies this fatal approach to democratic government. But such faith is almost wholly mistaken, save in clearly defined and chronologically limited enterprises in times of national emergency, such as World War II. Individuals are certainly endowed with free will, though in limited degree. But individual free will is compromised to the extent that individual will is multiplied within the social context. Societies that enjoy the freest and most effective action of the deliberate will are always societies built to the smallest scale, while large-scale ones are necessarily the least free and the least effective in concerted action. Today, most advanced societies are mass societies, a circumstance that hugely reduces their capacity for efficient national action and accomplishment. The larger the society, the greater and more extensive its government; the bigger and more highly developed the public apparatus, the less efficient it is—as the legislative and executive branches are overgrown and strangled by a kudzu growth of the permanent bureaucracy—and the more divided and confused the national will becomes. Modern rulers, autocrats and “democrats” alike, refuse from self-interest and ambition to acknowledge this truth, and so do their bureaucracies, which have the most to gain from public elephantiasis. “Everybody” (Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Antonis Samaras, Mariano Rajoy, Mario Monti, the president of the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, Wall Street and Lombard Street, etc.) demands that the European Union act to save the euro (and itself), and all of them seem confident that political and economic policies, astutely devised, are up to the job. Manifestly, however, they are not. Nor is there cause to believe that taking no action at all, in preference to allowing the economies of Europe to sort themselves out—even, perhaps, by suffering temporary collapse—would likely be as effective, if not more so, in solving the crisis in the long run as the implementation of some almost wholly artificial program of action would be.
There is somewhere a balance to be struck between fatalist societies, like the Hindu and Islamic ones, and the confidently pragmatic, determinedly technocratic, overly engineered, and hypercontrolling societies of the West, all of whose leaders are confident of holding the future in their own hands, provided that they can identify and implement the right policies in time. Anyhow, they profess such confidence. Yet their publics are beginning to doubt it, which explains the growing popular distrust of government at the present time. While people are cynical about what the liberal media call their “leaders,” they have not lost faith in the power of democratic societies to will their way out of unpleasant situations and into utopian ones. Modern democratic politics, consumerism, and the advertising industry long ago convinced them of the possibility for popular self-determination, a conviction of which they refuse to be disabused. Democracies, Bagehot said, will not hear ill of themselves, and he was only too right. When people make an idol of democracy, when they come to mistake democracy for divinity, they naturally grow accustomed to the notion that democracy is all wise and all powerful. When it is discovered to be not so, democratic publics conclude that the deity’s acolytes, not the deity himself, are to blame, and that their replacement by new ones will purify the temple and move the god to take appropriate action.
In their capacity as individuals, human beings indeed have significant free will; as members of society, mass society especially, hardly any. This has only in part to do with numbers and social complexity. More essential is that “free will,” considered as a personal attribute, means something quite different from its social application. The recent disaffection with democracy is a reflection of modern man’s conviction that “freedom,” as modern democracy understands the word, is an actual and realizable possibility. Not until this naive belief is superseded by a recognition of the fundamental contingency of human existence will democracy be both popularly acceptable and practicably workable again (assuming, of course, that it ever really was).