Chapter VI of my book, "Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder" puts forward the leftist case for the central and radical importance of democracy. Democratic socialism is neither a reforming variety of socialist, nor merely a particularly progressive-minded liberal, but rather an ideology that treats both democracy and socialism as equally serious modes of analysis. "Liberal democracy", I write, "is the best set of institutions we've yet created to facilitate cooperative solutions to social problems. . . . If they didn't exist, the left would have to invent them." Liberal democracy represents a stable, if far from ideal, quasi-equilibrium which has proven successful in delivering growth, basic egalitarianism and military security in a diverse range of cultural and strategic environments.
Yet the association between the philosophy of liberalism and democracy, as a form and structure of government, is neither unproblematic nor automatic. Democracies pre-date liberalism by several millennia, and have employed diverse legitimising belief systems (c.f. for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran). Totalitarian autocracies, including Nazi Germany, the USSR and North Korea, hold elections and elect parliaments. And even if we enforce a stricter definition of democracy focusing on the peaceful transfer of power between competing elites, then the slave-holding and imperialist European limited monarchies of the 18th and 19th century would qualify as democracies despite restricting the franchise to a tiny fraction of property-holding males. The People's Republic of China is no democracy, but upholds the rule of law and market institutions with a fervour that would make American conservatives blush.
As the 19th century oligarchies (and the hypocrisy of the liberal philosophers who supported them) demonstrate, there is an underlying tension between liberals and the expectations of universal, participatory democracy. I've written before about elites' irrational fear of 'populism', unleashed by the rising tide of right-wring authoritarians and the return of socialists who seek to roll fascism back. Across the world, self-identified liberal centrists are more sceptical of democracy, less likely to support elections, and more supportive of authoritarianism than either the self-identified left or right. Centrist politics - often self-avowedly liberal - has an underlying distrust of public opinion in a way that is only being amplified by the ever-increasing popularity of behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology and social media. This blog is about the myth(s) which undergirds that scepticism: the 'tyranny of the majority'. Why do liberals mistrust democracy, what does it lead to, and should we be concerned?
Two origins, two myths
There are essentially two variants of the 'tyranny of the majority' myth (one individualist, one group-centred or utilitarian), which serve different purposes in the overall canon of liberalism depending on the outlook of the audience. Each represents a point where liberals limit their enthusiasm for popular, nationalist or revolutionary projects: yes, emancipation from feudalism and empire is great, but popular democracy cannot be allowed to go too far, else we end up in Revolutionary France or the Soviet Union. The mythological tyranny of the majority *is* for all intents and purposes the Terror: the repression of individuals and minorities by 'democratic' governments that embody the will of the people. This potential for abuse existed in classical liberalism because neither Hobbes' Leviathan state, Locke's universal 'human nature', nor Rousseau's 'general will' conceived of the diversity of the modern democratic electorate.
For John Stuart Mill, the tyranny of the majority was "tendency of society to impose . . . its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own." In order to limit this threat, it is necessary that the only "the only purpose for which [democratic] power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." Mill, in other words, was advancing a social theory of individual rights (rather than a natural or divine law theory like many of his predecessors): liberal rights are necessary when individuals contract with a democratic government because that government poses a threat to their interests which does not exist in a state of nature. In order to protect the freedom of individuals, the entire liberal democratic apparatus of the separations of powers, the independence of the judiciary and human rights necessarily follows.
Chapter VII of my book essentially endorses Mills' individualist viewpoint. But there is a second (chronologically older) take on the tyranny of majority, which is more utilitarian and consequentialist in character. In Federalist No. 10, future US President James Madison wrote about the origins of inequality as arising "[f]rom the . . .different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, [such that] the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results." Since inequality is the "most common and durable" driver of class conflict, a democratic majority might give in to the temptations of a "a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project." Liberal institutions, therefore, are a necessary check on democracy in order to preserve the 'exacting impartiality' required of proper economic governance, the priorities of which are [obviously?] the solvency of the national debt and the protection of private wealth.
The pro-market consequentialism inherent in Madison's argument - that the contentious nature of democracy impairs good governance and that liberal institutions are a necessary check on the passion and self-interest of the mob - is found in almost all utilitarian and capitalist screeds against democracy. It underlies the appeal of authoritarian governance to centrist politicians and big business alike. Democracy, in this view, is unnecessary in a liberal society so long as it's well governed and protects property rights. It is this Madisonian fear of majority rule, particularly influential among the American right, that lies at the faultline between liberals and democracy. It is why independent, technocratic institutions - at both the national and international level - are seen as an ideal bulwark in defense of the status quo order.
Illiberal Democracies and Liberal Undemocracies
The partnership between liberalism and democracy, therefore, is dynamic and potentially vulnerable to changing environmental circumstances. Under pressure from anaemic global growth and authoritarian challenger states, we start to see slippage, the tectonic plates on which our governments rest sliding past one another. Whereas we’re used to thinking of liberal democracy as a unitary concept, now there are mutations: illiberal democracy and liberal undemocracy (which we'll just call liberal oligarchy for the sake of clarity). As the inheritor of the Madisonian argument, neoliberalism served as the handmaiden of the current crisis of democracy: self-avowedly apolitical and technocratic, liberal oligarchy aimed to place the levers of economic and social power beyond the reach of the mob. Expanding the reach and privilege of property rights was seen as the keystone unlocking economic growth.
The neoliberals were wrong. Not only were they incapable of sustaining economic growth for more than a few years at a time without recurrent financial crises, but their indifference towards the interests of those in the electorate who missed out on the boom times bred a crisis of legitimacy in government itself that we are now seeing play out all over the capitalist world. In response, social movements on both the right and left are arguing that a more democracy would be a necessary corrective: more accountability, more responsiveness and a greater willingness to get our hands dirty to bring the market back into line. These movements differ *vastly* and significantly in what democracy means to them: for the left, democracy means fulfilment of the liberal promise of the equal dignity of all humanity, for the right, more democracy means satisfaction of conservative and nationalist grievances. But both are committed to the position that liberal oligarchy is neither desirable nor sustainable.
Left-wing populism demonstrates that there is no necessary conflict between liberalism and more democracy - depending, of course, on what variant of liberalism we want. But Cas Mudde, amongst others, has made the argument that more populism means a society *must* move in an illiberal direction. But this oppositional understanding is only true if either a) liberalism means, in the strictly Madisonian sense, capitalist economic governance, or b) more democracy threatens individual rights and the corrosion of liberal institutions that protect those rights. All 'populisms' are not the same: it is right-wing populism that threatens the rights of individuals and minorities, that seeks to weaken the independence of the judiciary and other checks on the power of the executive (sense (b)). Anyone (right or left) who supports of Mills' account of individual liberty can see how right wing populism can lead to illiberal politics. However, in order to see an equivalent threat from the left, your understanding of liberalism must be strictly (sense (a)) Madisonian, pro-capitalist and utilitarian.
Fascism - right-wing populism - is a form of cancer that preys on the body of liberal oligarchies which face a crisis of legitimacy and loss of faith in democratic institutions. In seeking a more authentic nationalist democracy, fascists are more than happy to sweep away the 'decadent' liberal order; all too often, liberal oligarchies facilitate this process by deliberately courting illiberal politics in order to enhance their legitimacy and stave off decline. Elites falsely believe that in order to make their rule more democratic, it needs to become more illiberal. It's straightforward to indulge in the chauvinistic tyrannies of the majority for an election cycle or two, particularly if those tyrannies can be directed at migrants, non-citizens, minorities and other marginalised groups. Why not pay that price in order to preserve the liberal economic order?
Looking to the future by working with the past
As a democratic or libertarian socialist, I see no fatal conflict between the institutions of liberal governance and the quest for a more just social and economic order. But historically, I must admit, left wing populism is not immune to an illiberal impulse. Marx & Engels were famously dismissive of 'bourgeois' democracy, and the temptation to 'cheat' the system and press for faster, more radical change is always present. Modern monetary theory, I suspect, gains much of its appeal from seeming like an end-run around the existing economic order. But the revolutionary appeal of doing away with liberal institutions at will is illusory and dangerous: change must be made, and rules and norms can be bent to do so. But we would break them at our peril. Globally, the Left has been down that road and did not like where it took us. I would encourage, therefore, populists of the left-wing variety to be willing and able to argue the case why more equality and more democracy is consistent with (and in fact, reinforces and defends) a free and open liberal society. That, more than any other, is the central theme of my book.