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“This, then, my friend,” said I, “is the fine and vigorous root from which tyranny grows, in my opinion.” “Vigorous indeed,” he said; “but what next?” “The same malady,” I said, “that, arising in oligarchy, destroyed it, this more widely diffused and more violent as a result of this licence, enslaves democracy. And in truth, any excess is wont to bring about a corresponding reaction to the opposite in the seasons, in plants, in animal bodies, and most especially in political societies.” “Probably,” he said. “And so the probable outcome of too much freedom is only too much slavery in the individual and the state.” “Yes, that is probable.” “Probably, then, tyranny develops out of no other constitution than democracy—from the height of liberty, I take it, the fiercest extreme of servitude.”

Republic by Plato, Book VIII, 563e-564a (from Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vols. 5 & 6 translated by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1969).

In the wake of the recent Canadian elections and in the midst of the unfolding American campaign for the next presidential elections, we are offered with yet another opportunity to think about the democratic process. And by thinking I neither mean to condemn it nor to be apologetic of it. On one hand, to say that democracy as a political regime has failed –as we may hear from time to time– is not really helpful: it doesn’t explain much and it is rather precisely what would require a thorough explanation. On the other hand, the idea that voting is a moral obligation is often presented as a way to close a discussion (rather then allowing it to explore new avenues). In this context, I find important to remind myself that debates about democracy are as old as democracy itself1.
German philosopher Eduard Zeller wrote back in 1897 about Aristotle’s Politics:

Secondly, we have the principle which constitutes one of the leading thoughts in Aristotle’s Politics, and is not the least of the many proofs of political insight exhibited in the work– namely, that every form of government brings ruin on itself by its own excess, and that moderation in the use of authority, justice to all, good administration and moral capacity are the best means of etaining power. Democracies are ruined by demagogy and by injustice toward prosperous classes; oligarchies, by oppression of the people and by the limitation of political rights to too small a minority; monarchies by arrogance and outrage in the rulers. He who desires the maintenance of any form of government must endeavour above evrything to keep it with the limits of moderation, and prevent it from courting its own destruction by any one-sided insistence on the principle of its constitution; he must endeavour to reconcile conflicting factions; he must counterbalance the preponderance of one by assgning corresponding influence to the other, and so preserve the former from excess. Above all, he most be careful to prevent the public offices from being plundered and oppressed by the other. Here the right course is precisely the opposite of that which is commonly pursued: it is precisely the natural opponents of a constitution that require most consideration, lest by unjust treatment they be transformed inot active enemies of the commonwealth. (Aristotle and the earlier Peripatetics : being a translation from Zeller’s Philosophy of the Greeks, tr. by Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe and J. H. Muirhead, vol. II, New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., pp. 285-286; originally published as Die Philosophie der Griechen in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung [1844-1852])

Thomas Hobbes:

But it is an easy thing, for men to be deceived, by the specious name of Libertie; and for want of Judgement to distinguish, mistake that for their Private Inheritance, and Birth right, which is the right of the Publique only. And when the same errour is confirmed by the authority of men in reputation for their writings in this subject, it is no wonder if it produce sedition, and change of Government. In these westerne parts of the world, we are made to receive our opinions concerning the Institution, and Rights of Common-wealths, from Aristotle, Cicero, and other men, Greeks and Romanes, that living under Popular States, derived those Rights, not from the Principles of Nature, but transcribed them into their books, out of the Practice of their own Common-wealths, which were Popular; as the Grammarians describe the Rules of Language, out of the Practise of the time; or the Rules of Poetry, out of the Poems of Homer and Virgil. And because the Athenians were taught, (to keep them from desire of changing their Government,) that they were Freemen, and all that lived under Monarchy were slaves; therefore Aristotle puts it down in his Politiques,(lib.6.cap.2) “In democracy, Liberty is to be supposed: for ’tis commonly held, that no man is Free in any other Government.” And as Aristotle; so Cicero, and other Writers have grounded their Civill doctrine, on the opinions of the Romans, who were taught to hate Monarchy, at first, by them that having deposed their Soveraign, shared amongst them the Soveraignty of Rome; and afterwards by their Successors. And by reading of these Greek, and Latine Authors, men from their childhood have gotten a habit (under a false shew of Liberty,) of favouring tumults, and of licentious controlling the actions of their Soveraigns; and again of controlling those controllers, with the effusion of so much blood; as I think I may truly say, there was never any thing so deerly bought, as these Western parts have bought the learning of the Greek and Latine tongues. (Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil by Thomas Hobbes, Chapter XXI “On The Liberty of Subjects”)

Rousseau:

It is not good for him who makes the laws to execute them, or for the body of the people to turn its attention away from a general standpoint and devote it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of the laws by the government is a less evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the inevitable sequel to a particular standpoint. In such a case, the State being altered in substance, all reformation becomes impossible, A people that would never misuse governmental powers would never misuse independence; a people that would always govern well would not need to be governed.
If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. (The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, tr. by G. D. H. Cole, public domain (original publication : Amsterdam, 1792), Book III, chap 4; original French text available online as well)

Tocqueville:

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest—his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind; as for the rest of his fellow-citizens, he is close to them, but he sees them not—he touches them, but he feels them not; he exists but in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country. Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications, and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent, if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks on the contrary to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness: it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances—what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things: it has predisposed men to endure them, and oftentimes to look on them as benefits. (Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville, originally published in French in 1840, English tr. by Henry Reeve, volume II, Book VI, Chapter VI: “What Sort Of Despotism Democratic Nations Have To Fear”; original French text available online as well)

Zizek:

“Democracy” is not merely the “power of, by, and for the people,” it is not enough just to claim that, in democracy, the will and the interests (the two in no way automatically coincide) of the large majority determine the state decisions. Democracy – in the way this term is used today – concerns, above all, formal legalism: its minimal definition is the unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. “Democracy” means that, whatever electoral manipulation took place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results. In this sense, the US presidential elections of 2000 were effectively “democratic”: in spite of obvious electoral manipulations, and of the patent meaninglessness of the fact that a couple hundred of Florida voices will decide who will be the president, the Democratic candidate accepted his defeat. In the weeks of uncertainty after the elections, Bill Clinton made an appropriate acerbic comment: “The American people have spoken; we just don’t know what they said.” This comment should be taken more seriously than it was meant: even now, we don’t know it – and, maybe, because there was no substantial “message” behind the result at all. This is the sense in which one should render problematic democracy: why should the Left always and unconditionally respect the formal democratic “rules of the game”? Why should it not, in some circumstances, at least, put in question the legitimacy of the outcome of a formal democratic procedure?
Interestingly enough, there is at least one case in which formal democrats themselves (or, at least, a substantial part of them) would tolerate the suspension of democracy: what if the formally free elections are won by an anti-democratic party whose platform promises the abolition of formal democracy? (This did happen, among other places, in Algeria a couple of years ago, and the situation is similar in today’s Pakistan.) In such a case, many a democrat would concede that the people was not yet “mature” enough to be allowed democracy, and that some kind of enlightened despotism whose aim will be to educate the majority into proper democrats is preferable. (“Too Much Democracy?” by Slavoj Zizek, lecture diven at Columbia University on April 14, 2003)

• • •

1. [UPDATE–September 6, 2012] Many of the authors whose essays are gathered in the book Democracy In What State? (2001; originally published in French as Démocratie, dans quel état?, 2009) made this observation. In his “Introductory note on the Concept of Democracy”, Giorgio Agamben wrote:

The term democracy sounds a false note whenever it crops up in de- bate these days because of a preliminary ambiguity that condemns anyone who uses it to miscommunication. Of what do we speak when we speak of democracy? What is the underlying rationale? (p. 1)

Later in the book, in an interview he did with Eric Hazan, Jacques Rancière explains:

What we are seeing today takes us right back to the time when the word originated. Ever since, the one thing on which all have agreed is that democracy denotes different, opposing things. It starts with Plato, who says that democracy is not a form of government, just the whim of people who want to behave licentiously. It continues with Aristotle, who says that democracy is fine, as long as the democrats are kept from exercising it. And how many times in the modern era have we heard that old chestnut from Churchill about democracy being the worst regime, except for all the others? So I don’t believe there is universal assent to democracy, only universal consensus that it means two different things. (p. 77) ↩︎︎

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