Democracy as an adaptive fiction

It’s been a while since I posted anything really controversial and offensive here, and I have a vague sense that there are some new readers who don’t know what they’ve gotten into. Sure, it’s still legal to read UR. But unless you take special precautions, you’re leaving a trail of HTTP requests that future regimes may have no trouble at all in tracing to you personally. These may well qualify you for a stint in one of the new inpatient sensitivity facilities. Mellow out, as Jello Biafra put it, or you will pay. Try tapping on the wall—I might hear you.

In any case. Today I thought it’d be fun to talk about democracy. Unless you are 107 years old and a veteran of the Austrian Landwehr, you probably associate democracy with peace, freedom, progress and prosperity. Since I associate democracy with war, tyranny, destruction and poverty, we certainly have something to talk about.

My guess is that the conventional view of democracy, which I of course grew up with, is what we can call an adaptive fiction. An adaptive fiction is a misperception of reality that, unlike most such misperceptions, manages to outcompete the truth.

For example, suppose we somehow became convinced that warm beer is refreshing, whereas cold beer is poisonous. Obviously a fiction, and obviously maladaptive in our society. However, if we imagine a hot country ruled by brewers, who control their serfs by paying them only in lager, which being warm leaves them both tipsy and unrefreshed, hence quite incapable of revolt… you get the idea.

In this brewers’ republic, the warm-beer fiction is what Gaetano Mosca called a political formula. (Mosca’s philosophy is nicely summarized in James Burnham’s The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, which at $50 for a used pocket-book is positively a bargain, and about as close as you’ll get to Oligarchical Collectivism.)

A political formula is a belief that makes the ruled accept their rulers. Since the former tend to outnumber the latter, a political formula is, if not absolutely essential, an excellent way to cut down on your security costs. A political formula is adaptive because the rulers have, obviously, both motive and opportunity to promote it.

The best example of a political formula is divine-right monarchy—simply because this formula is defunct. Hardly anyone these days believes in the divine right of kings. Since at one time, most everyone did, we have incontrovertible proof that adaptive fictions can exist in human societies. Either divine-right monarchy is a fiction, and people then were systematically deluded. Or kings do rule by the grace of God, and people now are systematically deluded.

Or, of course, both. Because Mosca’s second example of a political formula is—democracy.

In UR terms, democracy is a core tenet of Universalism. It’s really not possible to be a Universalist and not believe in democracy. It’s like being a Catholic and thinking the Virgin Mary was “just some chick.”

Universalism is the faith of the Brahmins, the intellectual caste whose global dominance has been unchallenged arguably since World War II, and certainly since the end of the Cold War. Since an intellectual is defined by his or her ability to influence the opinions of others, it’s not hard to see why democracy is such an effective political formula. Democracy means that popular opinion controls the State; intellectuals guide popular opinion; ergo, intellectuals guide the State.

As Walter Lippmann pointed out 75 years ago, public opinion in a democracy is a sort of funhouse mirror that reflects—albeit inaccurately, imperfectly and often quite reluctantly—the views of the governing elite. To be fair, it also has a certain filtering effect which discourages some of the nuttiest intellectual fads, if only because they can be positively incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t been to Harvard. But the history of extraordinary popular delusions does not afford much confidence—and with only a few exceptions, the beliefs held at elite schools in the Unionist (Lincoln to Wilson), Progressive (Wilson to FDR), and Universalist (FDR to now) periods have been leading indicators of American public opinion. Very generally, the consensus at Harvard at year Y is the consensus of America at Y+50. If this isn’t power, what is?

I don’t think anyone reasonable would dispute this. What I do think many reasonable people would dispute is the claim that democracy is a fiction—which, note, I have not justified at all.

In fact it’s perfectly possible for a political formula to be an accurate description of reality. If democracy is the rule of Brahmins, fine. But don’t the Brahmins seem to be doing a pretty good job of it? Don’t we have—with a few small exceptions—peace, freedom, prosperity and progress? And, even more damning, don’t the places in the world that lack democracy also seem to lack these things?

It is all very convincing. But, you see, a political formula has to be convincing. We’re not talking about something some asshole came up with on his lunch break here. We’re looking at the result of 200-plus years of adaptive evolution. We shouldn’t expect a sordid little lie. We should expect a spectacular masterpiece of incredible mendacity. If it is, in fact, an adaptive fiction—and it certainly seems prudent to start by assuming the worst—democracy has fooled pretty much all of the people, pretty much all the time. At least for most of the 20th century.

So I could point out that the Austro-Hungarian Empire had plenty of peace, freedom, prosperity and progress, and hardly any democracy. Or that the same can be said of Dubai, Hong Kong, and even in many ways Singapore. Or that the Founders who created the American Republic for the most part feared and despised mob rule, or that the Civil War more than justified these fears. Or that the so-called democracies of the Progressive and Universalist eras, especially colonial confections such as the EU, combine a homeopathic dose of democracy with an allopathic dose of the Hegelian civil-service state, whose functionaries are intentionally unaccountable to “the People,” and whose jobs would change not at all if elective offices suddenly became familial—as in fact they may be in the early stages of doing.

But this would be the same kind of argument that is made in favor of democracy. A jumble of negative associations to counter the jumble of positive associations. Hardly effective against a sacred status quo.

As Swift said, it’s useless to try to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into, and certainly few of us were reasoned into democracy. However, I do vaguely remember my earliest, and surely entirely received, thoughts on why democracy is so great. And perhaps it’s worthwhile trying to unravel the string from the beginning.

As I recall, I thought democracy was great because America was obviously democratic and free, it was opposed to the Soviet system which was non-democratic and non-free, and both had fought a war against the Nazis, who were non-democratic and evil. It was pretty clear to me, as it still is, that the parties running these non-democratic states were simply mafias.

So we have the association again: democracy equals free and prosperous, non-democracy equals tyrannous and poor. Case closed, it would seem.

Unfortunately, correlation does not imply causation. And there’s another causal explanation of this correlation that makes at least as much sense.

In the standard view, democracy is like the cure for a disease. This disease might simply be described as primitiveness. The primitive way of government is tyrannous and, frankly, bestial, going back to the chimpanzees with their chief-chimps and chimp wars. Democracy cures this disease and allows us to have HDTVs and iPhones. Those who don’t take the democracy pill are stuck in chimp world and have to live under chimp government, fishing for ants with sticks.

In the inverted view, democracy is like a poison. The permanent contest for political power that democracy creates is an extreme case of limited war, in which no weapons at all are allowed, and battle is resolved by counting heads. In other words, democracy is a permanent source of friction. Only very stable, healthy and homogeneous societies can withstand this poison. In those that can’t, the cultural convention of limited warfare breaks down, and true civil war emerges, culminating in, of course, chimp government.

So a free, prosperous democratic society is like a person who’s so strong and healthy he can take a dose of arsenic every day—or at least, every four years—and still survive, sort of. The free, prosperous democratic society might be remarkably unfree and unprosperous compared to an undemocratic society that never took the arsenic, but so few of the latter survived the last two centuries that we have no basis for comparison. (You can’t really compare the US or France to Singapore or Dubai. Even the Central Powers of WWI were anything but free from democratic politics. Any exercise in imagining what 180 years of technical progress would have brought to, say, the France of Charles X, is entirely in the department of fantasy.)

Meanwhile, the undemocratic, tyrannous societies are not those which failed to take the democratic arsenic, but those which took it and found it fatal. Of course they are no longer ingesting the medication. Their lips do not move and their throat does not swallow. Civil society has been destroyed. I’m sure there are one or two 20th-century tyrannies which did not get that way as the result of a democratic degringolade, but I find it hard to think of them.

Both the standard and inverted perspectives are quite consistent with historical fact. And the inverted model is by no means as unusual as one might think. Every time you hear someone decrying the presence of politics in government, he or she is expressing it. Anyone who praises “nonpartisan” or “bipartisan” or, so help me God, “post-partisan” government, or (especially in Europe) decries the existence of “populist” parties or politicians, or even who believes that there is no room for “extremism” in politics, is stating their fear and distrust of democracy.

Yet none of them will put it in these terms. In conventional Universalist discourse, therefore, the democratic state becomes a kind of sickbed patient, an employment opportunity for every chiropractor, homeopath or bloodletter under the sun. Its health is constantly fretted over in the direst of terms. All the problems of democracy can be solved by… more democracy.

Most people don’t know this, but Marxist-Leninist thinkers saw socialism in the same way. Socialism had this problem, it had that problem, yes, it was true, the turnips were rotting in the fields and men were sent to Siberia for speaking their minds. But was this an occasion to discard all the achievements of socialism? Wouldn’t that be curing acne with decapitation? Shouldn’t we instead move forward, to a kinder and more efficient socialism? The temptation to reform, rather than abandon, the adaptive fiction, is omnipresent.

Another way the democratic fiction protects itself is to define “democracy” as “successful democracy.” Therefore, it is easy to see that democracy is always successful. For example, there was a democratic election in Iraq—using one of the most democratic of democratic forms, proportional representation, specifically recommended by the UN—and there is now a democratic government. This government is incapable of enforcing the law or even administering itself, however, so it cannot be true democracy.

(And no one thinks the failure of democracy in Iraq casts any aspersion on democracy. Even the pessimists conclude that Iraq is simply not “ready” for democracy. The ultra-pessimists conclude that Iraq may never be ready, presumably because of its strong tribal culture and its national IQ of 87. No one seems to suspect democracy itself. If your medicine routinely kills the weak and spares only the sturdy, Occam’s razor doesn’t lead you to suspect that it’s bad for sick people, but good for healthy ones.)

In fact, the word “democracy” has narrowed over time to focus on those democratic forms which have been more correlated with success. Reversing this definition creep is a difficult and unenviable task, and so I’ll resort to my usual tricks and define a new word, which corresponds to the literal derivation of “democracy” rather than its present connotations.

Let’s define demotism as rule in the name of the People. Any system of government in which the regime defines itself as representing or embodying the popular or general will can be described as “demotist.” Demotism includes all systems of government which trace their heritage to the French or American Revolutions—if anything, it errs on the broad side.

The Eastern bloc (which regularly described itself as “people’s democracy”) was certainly demotist. So was National Socialism—it is hard to see how Volk and Demos are anything but synonyms. Both Communism and Nazism were, in fact, obsessed with managing public opinion. Like all governments, their rule was certainly backed up by force, if more so in the case of Communism (the prewar Gestapo had less than 10,000 employees). But political formulae were of great importance to them. It’s hard to argue that the Nazi and Bolshevik states were any less deified than any clerical divine-right monarchy.

Most people in democratic states tend to instinctively classify political systems into two types: democracies and everything else. (Of course, this dichotomy is typical of all political formulas—any regime constituted under a conflicting formula must be somehow invalid.) The old monarchist-aristocratic order in Europe, which was certainly not perfect, falls into “everything else,” and thus we wind up putting, say, Elizabeth I and Stalin into the same bag.

The difference between a monarch and a dictator is that the monarchical succession is defined by law and the dictatorial succession is defined by power. The effect in the latter is that the fish rots from the head down—lawlessness permeates the state, as in a mafia family, because contending leaders must build informal coalitions. Since another name for a monarchist is a legitimist, we can contrast the legitimist and demotist theories of government.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I see legitimism as a sort of proto-formalism. The royal family is a perpetual corporation, the kingdom is the property of this corporation, and the whole thing is a sort of real-estate venture on a grand scale. Why does the family own the corporation and the corporation own the kingdom? Because it does. Property is historically arbitrary.

The best way for the monarchies of Old Europe to modernize, in my book, would have been to transition the corporation from family ownership to shareholder ownership, eliminating the hereditary principle which caused so many problems for so many monarchies. However, the trouble with corporate monarchism is that it presents no obvious political formula. “Because it does” cuts no ice with a mob of pitchfork-wielding peasants.

So the legitimist system went down another path, which led eventually to its destruction: the path of divine-right monarchy. When everyone believes in God, “because God says so” is a much more impressive formula.

Perhaps the best way to look at demotism is to see it as the Protestant version of rule by divine right—based on the theory of vox populi, vox dei. If you add divine-right monarchy to a religious system that is shifting from the worship of God to the worship of Man, demotism is pretty much what you’d expect to precipitate in the beaker.

Demotist political formulas have varied a good bit, but the phrase that expresses demotism as well as any I can think of is “self-government.” I frequently see this term used as if it meant something. In fact it does not, which is perhaps the best debunking of democracy I can offer.

Does “self-government” mean “government by yourself”? Certainly “self-employment” means “employment by yourself,” “self-abuse” means “abuse by yourself,” etc., etc. But the idea of “government by yourself” is inherently tautological. Unless you’re possessed by a demon, you govern yourself by definition. If the term means anything in this sense, it means that there is no other form of government, i.e., no government at all—anarchy. But clearly this is not what the people who talk of “self-government” mean. If we are governed at all, we are governed by others—and thus “self-government” is a classic Orwellian paradox.

In practice the term seems most commonly to refer to “government by persons of the same race, culture, language, or social class or as oneself.” Since I am not, in fact, a bigot, it’s quite unclear why this should matter to me. Surely I can be either oppressed or treated decently by people of any race, color or creed, whether my own or someone else’s.

From the perspective of its subjects, what counts is not who runs the government, but what the government does. Good government is effective, lawful government. Bad government is ineffective, lawless government. How anyone reasonable could disagree with these statements is quite beyond me. And yet clearly almost everyone does.

If we look at the entire demotist family, consisting of Anglo-American liberal democracy, Marxist-Leninism, and National Socialism, the last two are clearly disasters. (There is a strange tendency in contemporary Universalist thought to see National Socialism as somehow on an entirely different plane of evil than Marxist-Leninism—for example, purging neo-Nazis is routine, whereas purging neo-Communists is McCarthyism. I don’t understand this at all, but then again, I don’t understand a lot of Universalist doctrine.)

This leaves us with liberal democracy. As we’ve seen time and again here at UR, the word “liberal” is meretricious to perfection, so we need a substitute—perhaps “lawful” will do. Let’s define “lawful democracy” as any demotist government that upholds the rule of law.

In other words, Universalist lawful democracy is the least demotist of demotisms, Demotism Lite if you will. Compared to Communism and Nazism, there’s much to be said for it. But this is a rather low bar.

I think it’s pretty clear that, if you lived in 1750 and a djinn appeared to you, explained the history of demotism in the next 250 years, and gave you the option of erasing all of it and just sticking with legitimism, you’d have to be a fairly perverse and sadistic fellow to decline the offer. It’s difficult to even scrape together \( 10^6 \) victims of legitimist government, let alone the \( 10^8 \) plus that Communism and Nazism racked up—not forgetting the million or so killed in the ruthless Universalist city-bombings of WWII, which were certainly war crimes by the standard of anyone who can produce a river of tears for the sufferers of Guantanamo.

The reason it’s so difficult to oppose lawful democracy is that we have so few alternatives to compare it to. Existential dissidence in the Soviet Union, for example—the desire to defeat the system, not just reform it—derived an enormous percentage of its credibility from the fact that the West clearly existed, and clearly (much propaganda notwithstanding) worked better.

The West has no West of its own. Besides tiny fossils of old Europe like Andorra, Monaco and Lichtenstein, the only successful non-democratic states in the world are Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai, each of which is interesting and impressive, but none of which are without problems. (I don’t normally spend much time in the Universalist blogosphere, because I consider myself pretty familiar with the product, but these threads on Singapore struck me as interesting and sincere.)

So there is no getting around it: democracy may be, as I contend, a lie, but this lie has us by the gills. It is not going away any time soon. The reason I oppose it is not because I believe there is any chance of getting rid of it in the near future, but simply because I prefer to live with what I consider an accurate perception of reality.

Also, remember that democracy is a state of limited civil war. It is always pregnant with the spark of war proper, at home or abroad. It’s fairly obvious that, in many of the international conflicts of the Universalist era, the two sides have been allied or parallied with different American political parties—even when the US military is involved in the war. To call this phenomenon dangerous would be an understatement, and I’ll say more about it shortly.

Two 20th-century writers who have existentially opposed democracy are Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Hoppe is a libertarian and K-L was a monarchist, so neither’s views are exactly the same as mine, but they are both worth reading. Hoppe is probably the more rigorous thinker; K-L was a much better writer with a broader, more intuitive feel for history. If you’re considering the hard and rocky road of the anti-democratic dissident, you should definitely check out their works.