The voice of the people is the voice of God.
The death of one religion and the birth of another mark an epoch. The requiem for Marxism was at once the trumpet call for democracy.
The secular creeds the two aforementioned, and nationalism have been the religions of twentieth century men and women. 'Secular religion', far from being an oxymoron, stands for verifiable facts. Ninian Smart has adumbrated the seven dimensions of religion. We go over them in turn with respect to democracy.
(1) First, there's the ritual dimension of the quinquennial vote, the municipal and local elections, the swearing-in ceremony....(2) Then there's the experiential or emotional aspect: every election is preceded by months of campaigning during which euphoria and heightened expectations prevail. (3) The narrative or mythical dimension of democracy is fairly obvious: there's the identification over 2,500 years with Greek democracy, with Harmodius and Aristogeiton, with the overthrow of the Peisistratids, with Cleisthenes. Locally, there is the identification with those who overthrew a 'tyrant': in Bangladesh, December 6, 1990 is recalled every year as the day General Ershad was overthrown; in America, the 4th of July serves a similar purpose. (4) Democracy, more than nationalism, has a far richer doctrinal dimension, ranging from - to take an arbitrary span - the treatises of John Locke to the output of John Stuart Mill. (5) The ethical dimension: values (observed in the breach) of tolerance, equality, accountability, are inculcated in voters. (6) The social and institutional aspects of democracy stand out literally: there's the elected President or Prime Minister with his or her regalia and elaborate ceremonies. (7) The material embodiment of democracy is often magnificent: in Bangladesh there's the Assembly Building designed by Louis Kahn; The Capitol, the White House and Westminster Palace are imposing monuments to democracy (Ninian Smart ,The World's Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1989), pp 10 - 25). As de Tocqueville observed: "Nowhere do citizens appear so insignificant as in a democratic nation; nowhere does the nation itself appear greater, or does the mind more easily take in a wide general survey of it. In democratic communities the imagination is compressed when men consider themselves; it expands indefinitely when they think of the State. Hence it is that the same men who live on a small scale in narrow dwellings, frequently aspire to gigantic splendor in the erection of their public monuments.( Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Volume 2, trans. Henry Reeve, http://www.blackmask.com, Chapter XII)"
Two unfortunate consequences follow: the goodness of democracy becomes evidence-transcendent, like the goodness of God; and its preaching becomes an article of faith. The latter first.
Richard Vinen remarks: "Some regretted the quiet, undramatic nature of most European life at the end of the century and felt that Europe had become a colourless place.( Richard Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century, (Cambridge, Ma: Da Capo Press, 2001), p. 520)" These people included Francis Fukuyama (He has recently dissented from his earlier views, making them more interesting.). But he might as well have been speaking of Larry Siedentop.
Democracy has no better disciple than Francis Fukuyama who lamented that "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the world-wide ideological struggle that called for the daring, courage, imagination and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.( Quoted with disapproval by Vinen, same page)" To die for an idea and to kill for an idea are virtues for Fukuyama. Vinen comments: "Those who had once 'risked their lives for a purely abstract goal', rather than working for the State Department and the Rand Corporation, often took a different view".
Fukuyama's words are echoed by Robert Kagan:
"The United States is a liberal, progressive society through and through, and to the extent that Americans believe in power, they believe it must be a means of advancing the principles of a liberal civilization and a liberal world order." (www.policyreview.org/JUN02/kagan.html)
And should that order mimic disorder, so much the worse for the world.
Unsurprisingly, Larry Siedentop's book Democracy in Europe is perhaps the most explicit attempt to elevate democracy to the status of religion: he identifies democracy with Christianity. "For the Christian God survives in the assumption that we have access to the nature of things as individuals. That assumption is, in turn, the final justification for a democratic society, for a society organised to respect the equal underlying moral status of all its members, by guaranteeing each 'equal liberty'. That assumption reveals how the notion of 'Christian liberty' came to underpin a radically new 'democratic' model of human association' (italics original). "Thus, the defining characteristic of Christianity was its universalism. It aimed to create a single human society, a society composed, that is, of individuals rather than tribes, clans or castes." (Larry Siedentop, Democracy in Europe, (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 2000),pp 194 - 208)
One cannot help concluding that the proselytism inherent in the view of democracy-as-religion must inevitably lead to violence on a worldwide scale. The very universalism that Siedentop boasts as the unique characteristic of democracy, derived from Christianity, excludes and downgrades other civilisations a repetition of early European feelings of superiority that one thought had been eschewed among intellectual circles. As Huxley noted: "The word [democracy] conjures up ideas of universal liberty and happiness. The hearer feels an expansive emotion, a pleasing enlargement of his personality, following on the idea of the loosening of restraints. He can be moved by repetition of the word to take violent action (italics added)." (Aldous Huxley, "A Few Well-Chosen Words", Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays, Volume II, 1926-1929, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), p. 59 )
And that is precisely what the U.S. President George W. Bush has done. He has played on people's emotions by stating his credo in the following terms: "the liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world. It is God's gift to humanity.( The Economist, December 18th 2004, p. 50)" Judging by the number of victims and S.E. Finer's remarks below, the gift would appear to be from the other party.
Now for the evidence-transcendence of the goodness of democracy. Democracy's goodness, on the other hand, works, like God, in mysterious ways: in the case of the deity, we accept that as part of faith. But democracy should surely be more transparent than the divine will! This faith in democracy precludes all rational analysis of democracy: no amount of empirical evidence can disprove the 'essential' goodness of democracy, or the sagacity and honesty of the masses. When a set of beliefs has been put beyond the reach of empirical verification, we are in very dangerous territory. Violence will be perpetrated in the name of the creed and then deemed to be necessary and even glorified. In fact, even if society becomes violent due to democratic change, it will be seen by its proponents as having 'improved' and got 'better' by virtue of that change alone. This is religion at work religion of the most dangerous and fanatical kind. Bertrand Russell once wrote: "Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical and therefore harmful" (http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings/ideaHarmMan.htm).
Beneath the chaff of emotion, the facts regarding democracy, according to S.E. Finer, are these: "The Forum polity is comparatively rare in the history of government, where the Palace polity and its variants are overwhelmingly the most common type. Only in the last two centuries has the Forum polity become widespread. Before then its appearance is, on the whole, limited to the Greek poleis, the Roman Republic, and the mediaeval European city-states. Furthermore, most of them for most of the time exhibited the worst pathological features of this kind of polity. For rhetoric read demagogy, for persuasion read corruption, pressure, intimidation, and falsification of the vote. For meetings and assemblies, read tumult and riot. For mature deliberation through a set of revising institutions, read instead self-division, inconstancy, slowness, and legislative and administrative stultification. And for elections read factional plots and intrigues. These features were the ones characteristically associated with the Forum polity in Europe down to very recent times. They were what gave the term 'Republic' a bad name, but made 'Democracy' an object of sheer horror." (S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 46-47)
And as late as 1927, and six years before Hitler's electoral success, Aldous Huxley could write: "Only the most mystically fervent democrats, who regard voting as a kind of religious act, and who hear the voice of God in that of the People, can have any reason to desire to perpetuate a system whereby confidence tricksters, rich men, and quacks may be given power by the votes of an electorate composed in a great part of mental Peter Pans, whose childishness renders them peculiarly susceptible to the blandishments of demagogues and the tirelessly repeated suggestions of the rich men's newspapers." (Aldous Huxley, "Political Democracy", Aldous Huxley: Complete Essays, Volume II, 1926-1929, ed. Robert S. Baker and James Sexton, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2000), pp. 216, 228 )
Huxley's solution to the democratic problem was the 'aristocratic state' that is, a bureaucracy. The ideal exam would select people for the task they are best suited to perform. "That every human being should be in his place that is the ideal of the aristocratic as opposed to the democratic state. It is not merely a question of the organisation of government but of the organisation of the whole of society."
However, since then, criticism of democracy has fallen strangely silent democracy has indeed been elevated to the level of a 'creed', to use Huxley's expression.
That the - unmentioned - pathologies of democracy are, nevertheless, fresh in the minds of the European elite has been glaringly obvious since the Austrian election that produced a government consisting of the Freedom Party. Louis Michel, the foreign minister of Belgium, said that voters can be "naive" and "simple". Of Jorg Haider's Freedom Party, he says that to be a democratic party "you must work by democratic rules, you must accept not to play on the worst feelings each human being has inside himself" (italics supplied) (The Economist, February 26th 2000, p. 66).
The masses were rarely consulted during the European project, and only when the infrastructure of the European Union was firmly in place. One senior German diplomat has been quoted as saying: "If we had had a referendum on the Treaty of Rome, people might have rejected it on the grounds that it raised the price of bananas". (The Economist, October 5th 2002, p. 52) And when they said "No" in a referendum, they were asked again and again. A paltry few bother to vote for Members of the European Parliament because only a paltry few understand the leviathan that is the European Union (in the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, turnout fell below 50% for the first time, and had voting not been compulsory in Greece, Italy, Luxembourg and Belgium, turnout would probably have been 42%!( The Economist, February 24th 2001, p. 55) In 2004, turnout was, in fact, 45% - The Economist, June 19th 2004, p. 14). An elite terrified of the prospect of another war conceived the entire project.
The response to the pathologies of democracy in Europe was 'consensus politics': European leaders eschewed ideology (Vinen, p 299). Finally, Huxley's vision of a bureaucratic polity has become a reality: Europe is run by unelected bureaucrats. It is only remarkable that the Europe has surrendered control over both fiscal and monetary policy - the latter to the fiercely independent European Central Bank, and the former to the 'stability and growth' pact - if we do not keep in mind the memory of the pathologies of democracy evidenced during the two world wars.
That, perhaps, is the way to the future the forum-bureaucratic polity or a purely bureaucratic polity (neither of which even figures in Finer's history of government, since they have never existed) or the traditional bureaucratic-palace polity. The common element in each of these possibilities is the bureaucratic element, and the downgrading of the forum element. The less power exerted by the people, or in the name of the people, the safer the world will be.
Larry Siedentop bemoans the loss of people power. "The direct election of Euro MPs is itself hardly more than a fig-leaf which fails to conceal the over-sized member of the European body the power of the European Commission and a bureaucracy imperfectly controlled by the Council of Ministers". (Siedentop, p. 122)
One has only to examine the legacies of the French Revolution to appreciate the dangers inherent in people power. Without the people's sovereignty, the people's army, the people's language and culture in short, the people the First and Second world wars would have been impossible: every force unleashed by the French revolution incubated into the world wars.
According to J. M. Roberts: "Europe had, after all, been prepared for war by the first age of mass education and literacy, by the first mass newspapers, and by decades of the propagation of ideals of patriotism. When it started, the Great War, which was to reveal itself as the most democratic in history in its nature, may well also have been the most popular ever.( J. M. Roberts, Twentieth Century: The History of the World: 1901 To The Present (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1999), pp. 244-5)" (Emphases added).
Suffrage in Selected European Countries before 1914 (Finer, p 1638)
Austria; 1907; Universal Male Suffrage
Belgium; 1894; Universal Male Suffrage
France; 1870; Universal Male Suffrage
Germany; 1870; Universal Male Suffrage
Italy ; 1912; Universal Male Suffrage
Netherlands; 1894; Universal Male Suffrage
Spain ; 1900; Universal Male Suffrage
Sweden; 1909; Universal Male Suffrage
Switzerland; 1874; Universal Male Suffrage
United Kingdom; 1884; 4.38 million = 15% population
For even the Social Democrats 'blood proved thicker than water', (Finer, p 1548) and they abandoned their socialism and pacifism to support their respective nations. This, despite the fact that the socialist vote was increasing; that socialist parties were becoming firmly entrenched in national parliaments: the Social Democratic Party had 1 million members, controlled 90 newspapers with a circulation of almost 1.5 million and attracted 4 million votes.(Vinen, pp 32 - 33) Rather, this essay would argue, it was because of their increasing contact with voters that they had to respond to the war along nationalist lines. The French Revolution established and sacralised the citizen-soldier-voter link.
A legacy of the revolution was the combination of the two principles of the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen': first, the nation decides its own destiny, and, second, 'the nation' means the People (Finer, p. 1547). The French nation was not to be a collection of individuals, but a union of persons into one family: worship of the collective self. As Finer observed "...the Revolution became a kind of religion, and one that everybody was supposed to share" (Finer, p. 1544). The Declaration 'consecrated the principle of election by or through the People' (Finer, p. 1534). The deification of the people had begun: the French people deified, the Germans soon reacted by deifying the German people. Finer quotes Heine as having anticipated Nazi Germany 100 years before the event: "There will come upon the scene armed Fichteans whose fanaticism of will is to be restrained neither by fear nor by self-interest; for they live in the spirit, they defy matter like those early Christians who could be subdued neither by bodily torments nor by bodily delights...he has allied himself with the primitive powers of nature, that he can conjure up the demoniac forces of old German pantheism....The old stone gods will arise from the forgotten ruins and wipe from their eyes the dust of centuries and Thor with his giant hammer will rise again, and he will shatter the Gothic cathedrals... (quoted by Finer, p. 1549)
THE DEMOCRATIC DEATH TOLL: THE TWO WORLD WARS (International Relations, Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition)
World War I; c. 8,400,000
World War II; c. 55,000,000
TOTAL; c. 63,400,000
One has only to note the repeated references to religion and religious feeling and imagery in the preceding paragraph both on Finer's part and Heine's to "hear the voice of God in that of the People", to repeat Aldous Huxley's expression.
"The mass religion of The Nation was reflected in equally mass defence".( S.E.Finer, The History of Government from the Earliest Times, p. 1549) The citizen army was another legacy of the French Revolution. Compare the military strength of nations before 1789 and later (Finer, p. 1549):
[Peacetime Army Numbers: 1740 / 1914]
Total Wartime Strength: 1914
Prussia [80,000 / 750,000] (Germany) 5,300,000
France [160,000 / 800,000] 4,400,000
The qualitative change was no less striking: in 1914, the army consisted of nationals; not so in the eighteenth century. We, therefore, had huge numbers able to fight, and willing to kill and be killed. Where the American War had bankrupted France and led to revolution, now it was inexpensive to employ soldiers. "Every able-bodied man regarded this, now, as a sacred duty. That is how, when 1914 came, so many millions of men went to their graves like sheep". (Finer, p. 1552-3) (italics added).
Or take these lines from All Quiet On The Western Front: "With our young, wide-open eyes we saw that the classical notion of patriotism we had heard from our teachers meant, in practical terms at that moment, surrendering our individual personalities more completely than we would ever have believed possible even in the most obsequious errand boy" (Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On The Western Front, trans. by Brian Murdoch, (London: Vintage, 1996), p. 16).
The fanatical worship of democracy today stands to be a greater threat to the world than the people we are used to calling fundamentalists. When the people are elevated to the level of God, they cannot err; they have, therefore, every authority to attack other states; they know better than other people, and so can subjugate them, militarily or financially; those who minister to them, their priests and representatives, can appeal to an abstraction that stands on a par with dialectical materialism, national socialism or Moloch. If we are to survive as a race, we must jettison an abstraction that demands human sacrifice.
As Hugh Brogan observes: "But Western democracy, however perfect its forms (and nowhere are they entirely consistent with its principles) always has problems on its hands that may prove too much for it. It could not avert the outbreak of two world wars, and a third has been averted so far more through terror of nuclear weapons than by democratic wisdom. Class conflicts are muted rather than resolved. Nationalism still distorts voters' judgments in matters of foreign policy; greed misleads them over economic policy. Demagogues are as much a menace as they were in ancient Athens, and many politicians are personally corrupt". He concludes with these very important words: "If man, the political animal, is to save himself and his civilizations, he cannot yet rest from seeking new forms of government to meet the ever-new needs of his times." (Hugh Brogan, "Forms of Government", Britannica)
To be stuck in the worship of an ancient idol foredooms humanity to an early and unnecessary grave. Clearly, for many people, one can never believe too much in democracy no matter how large the body count.