A short history of anti-democracy
The elitist sentiments coming back into fashion have been around since Plato.
Western society prides itself on its unique history of democracy, from Ancient Athens through Magna Carta to the American Declaration of Independence. Yet looked at from a different perspective, much of Western history appears more like a story of anti-democratic thought and action from society’s elites. It is a tale of those with power – from the oligarchs of the ancient world through the aristocrats of yore to the more liberal elitists of the modern era – seeking to restrict the spread of democracy and contain the aspirations of the masses.
Democracy was in peril from the moment of its birth in Ancient Greece. The D-word was first commonly used in Athens as an insult to those accused of encouraging mob rule, a dirty word to strike fear into the hearts of the propertied and powerful oligarchy. For 2,000 years after the fall of democratic Athens, the only reason democracy was not under threat was that no semblance of it existed. Until a couple of centuries ago the idea of democracy was not merely forgotten but unimaginable.
Even in modern Britain, which prides itself as the home of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, formal democracy was only introduced in a piecemeal and begrudging fashion. A century ago, millions were sent to fight and die in the First World War for a British state that still denied the vote to 40 per cent of adult men and all women. The 1918 reform act finally extended the vote to most males aged 21 – but only to propertied women aged at least 30. It would not be until 1928 that British women got the same right to vote as men. So universal suffrage in the UK is still younger than many older voters.
A glance at history can remind us that there is nothing inevitable about democracy; that it should never be taken for granted; that it has had to be fought for and defended through modern times; and that even today, when every leading voice in the West is nominally a democrat, the real meaning of democracy for the masses remains unresolved.
Every time there has been some apparent advance towards democracy that movement has been met with powerful attempts to contain it. Far from lasting for 800 years, for example, the original Magna Carta of June 1215 barely lasted 10 weeks before it was declared null and void by Pope Innocent III, outraged at the idea that any man could try to limit the power of a king anointed by God. When the 1848 revolution in France established the Second Republic, it lasted barely two years before the horrified forces of conservatism overturned universal male suffrage, soon followed by a coup d’état and the establishment of the Second French Empire under Napoleon III.
To start at the beginning. Democracy is widely considered the watchword of classical Athenian civilisation. Yet as the historian Paul Cartledge discusses elsewhere in the spiked review, Western political thought began in Ancient Greece with the express aim of criticising and curtailing Athenian democracy.
The Athenian system was based on the principle of full-blooded direct democracy, not the comparatively pallid representative system we are familiar with today. Male citizens (no women, no slaves) had a direct say and vote on their city-state’s rules and laws, through the assembly and the people’s juries.
The rich elite of the Athenian oligarchy were never comfortable with such a system of dynamic democratic power. Plato, an intellectual authoritarian, describes the master philosopher Socrates (who never wrote anything down himself) branding the most respected political leaders as little better than pastry chefs, pandering to the base appetites of the drooling masses. Why, in a true democracy, scoffs Plato’s Socrates, even the donkeys would assume airs! Rather than the democratic tyranny of the bestial masses, Plato favoured the rule of the few – preferably a few wise Platonic philosophers.
The anti-democratic philosophers denounced the political leaders of their age as ‘demagogues’, an insult which has come down the ages, meaning rabblerousers who lead the gullible mob astray. Yet in the original Greek, ‘demagogas’ meant merely ‘leader of the demos’, the people. We have apparently accepted the oligarchs’ bigoted view of that as an inherently dangerous role.
When the popular system of Athenian democracy was finally overthrown – not by the oligarchs within, but by Philip II of Macedon in 338 BC – it was quickly all-but erased from history. Not only was the system forgotten in the long centuries of empire, monarchy and caliphate, but the D-word itself effectively disappeared from the languages of the West.
It would take 2,000 years before democracy could mean something again. The European age of Renaissance and Enlightenment brought ideas of autonomy, liberty and equality to life, as people sought more of a say in the dawning modern age. The growing belief in the autonomy of the individual, freed from the bonds of feudalism, was accompanied by fresh ideas and demands for a greater say in the shaping of society.
However, even as the Enlightenment dawned, many thinkers were uncomfortable with the idea of democracy, and it was often those reacting against the new demands for change who left the strongest impression on history. The French royalist Jean Bodin attacked ‘the evils of popular government’ as practised in Ancient Athens: ‘To aske councel of a Multitude… is to seek for wisdome of a mad man.’
The rising demand of the ‘mad men’ for more control burst forth beneath King Charles I, in the tumult of the English Revolution (1642-51). The revolt by parliamentary forces against absolute monarchy was led by conservative men and aristocrats. Yet the English revolution soon mobilised the masses who wanted more far-reaching changes to the system of government.
The radical movement known as the Levellers raised a proto-democratic voice in modern politics for the first time, demanding annual parliamentary elections and votes for all – except the ‘delinquents’ who fought for the king. The first directly elected democratic body in England was formed, not in the aristocratic atmosphere of the Westminster parliament, but within the rank and file of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army. In 1647, as discontent grew in the ranks, they created the Army Council, made up of agents or agitators directly elected by common soldiers, and marched on London to make their demands heard.
The parliamentary elite reacted to this democratic rebellion with as much horror as any king. Leveller petitions were ordered to be burnt by the hangman, petitioners were arrested at Westminster and imprisoned. Yet the power of the rank and file forced the elite to contend with the challenge. In 1647, the Putney Debates brought Cromwell and other commanders together with Levellers and army representatives to discuss what system should replace absolute monarchy – an unprecedented sort of ‘parliament’.
In the end, however, Cromwell, who looked down with disdain upon such upstart notions, won the struggle with the Army Council and the war with the king and became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. The Levellers were crushed and forgotten, their very existence ‘levelled’ on the field of history.
During the revolutionary era, the demand for greater liberty in speech and politics was taken up by figures such as the poet John Milton. As often, the highbrow anti-democratic voices responded all the louder. In his epic work Leviathan (1651), philosopher Thomas Hobbes decried the fact that educated men such as Milton had been taught to read the classical works of Ancient Greece and Rome, which radical nonsense had given them ‘a habit of favouring tumults, and of licentious controlling the actions of their sovereigns’. For anti-democrats, the uneducated masses were not the only problem – educated men spreading dangerous notions were even more dangerous.
As quickly as 1660, the British monarchy was restored under Charles II. Then in 1688 the Protestant William Prince of Orange was invited in from the Netherlands to overthrow the Stuart dynasty. William and his English wife, Queen Mary, oversaw the ‘Glorious Revolution’ – a top-down reform of government that gave more powers to parliament but was in fact neither particularly glorious nor very revolutionary. The vast majority of British people still had no vote or voice in deciding the way they were governed.
As the modern age dawned in the 18th century, even the reformers were keen to keep the untrustworthy masses at arm’s length. Henry Fox, father of the leading Whig reformer Charles James Fox, spoke for many ‘liberal’ reformers of the 1700s. ‘When we talk of the people with regards to elections’, declared Fox, ‘we ought to think only of those of the better sort, without comprehending the mob or mere dregs of the people’.
Denied any political representation, the mass of British people could only express their preferences through that pre-democratic form of popular expression, the riot – as when 50,000 Londoners besieged parliament in 1771 in defence of the radical journalist, campaigner, MP and rogue John Wilkes, crying ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ and almost lynching the prime minister, Lord North. The Wilkes riots and similar outbursts of popular protest only served to make the elites even more fearful of granting the majority more power.
After its 2,000 year slumber, democracy was truly reawakened in explosive style by the American and French revolutions of the late-18th century. Even amid those tumults, fear and contempt towards ‘the mob or mere dregs of the people’ was much in evidence.
In 1776 the Founding Fathers of the United States declared the equality of all men in order to mobilise their revolutionary war of independence against the British colonialists. Yet most of these future US presidents displayed an unbridled passion for a strictly bridled form of democracy.
In the influential Federalist Papers, James Madison, later the fourth US President, drew a line between the American republic and those ‘turbulent democracies of Ancient Greece and modern Italy’. The problem with popular assemblies, he insisted, was that the passion of the irrational masses would drown out wise men. Even if every Athenian citizen had been a Socrates, Madison maintained, ‘every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob’.
Madison argued for an upper house, the Senate, to be less democratic and empowered to protect people from their own worst instincts, whenever they were ‘stimulated by some irregular passion’ to ‘call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn’.
Madison’s case against potential mob rule won the day, and the US established a senate and a system of ‘checks and balances’ as a conservative bulwark against too much democracy. It seems that those anti-democrats who have looked to the wise unelected peers of the House of Lords to protect the British people from their own irregular passions by reversing the Brexit referendum vote have some auspicious forebears.
One leader of the American Revolution who fought for a wider extension of democracy was the English radical Tom Paine, author of Common Sense and Rights of Man. Paine argued that democracy would enable the abolition of slavery – a shocking idea, even in revolutionary America. His case proved too radical for the Founding Fathers of the US republic, and Paine departed for France, where he also became a leading light in the second great popular revolution of the late-18th century.
It was around the French Revolution that Paine became involved in one of the defining debates of Western (anti-)democratic politics. His opponent was Edmund Burke, now considered the founding father of modern conservatism. Burke was horrified by the mass mobilisations of the French Revolution. He recoiled not only from the violent turmoil, but also from the underlying Enlightenment principle of democratic consent. Burke took the view that people don’t always understand what’s good for them. They need the authority of tradition, guided by a wise ruler, to move them in the right direction.
Burke saw the need for political reform to contain the threat of further revolutionary upheavals in Britain. But he believed that the political class, even if it must submit to being formally elected, must remain above the masses, ruling as the elite saw fit in what it considered to be the nation’s best interests. He upheld the importance of monarchy as the mainstay of traditional British authority. Paine took the contrary view that politicians should genuinely represent those who elected them, fighting for the interests of the populace, free from the stifling weight of monarchy and tradition.
As the Western elites took fright at the forces unleashed by the French Revolution, it was Burke’s conservative view that ultimately won out in that contest. Our societies’ idea of what ‘representative democracy’ means has unfortunately been shaped by that outcome ever since.
The 19th century looks like a period of advance for Western democracy. In Britain between 1838 and 1858 the Chartists, a working-class movement for political reform, won the support of millions for the People’s Charter, demanding the vote for every adult male, secret ballots, annual parliaments and payment of MPs, ‘enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation’.
These demands for real reform made the ruling elites even more uneasy about the very idea of democracy. They sought to contain it by redefining and sanitising the concept into something that would not threaten their control.
Thus each electoral reform in Britain – in 1832, 1867 and 1884 – extended the male franchise further, but always within limits. Property qualifications for voting were reduced, but not abolished. Ownership of property was seen as a stake in the status quo, a sign not only of wealth but of respectability and moderation. The property-less masses, by contrast, were no more to be trusted than the plebs of the Roman mob. And all women were still denied the vote, whether the members of that untrustworthy sex owned property or not.
Always underpinning this reticence about extending democracy was the fear of the masses as an irrational, easily swayed mob. In this elitist view the growing popular protests for democratic reform were themselves evidence of the dangers of democracy. When a mass demonstration for representation at St Peter’s Field in Manchester – a booming industrial city that still had no MPs – ended in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 as troops charged the crowd, the first response of the government was not to grant reforms but to enforce new punitive measures against demonstrations and the free press.
The people’s democratic aspirations, however, were not so easily repressed. The British authorities finally moved to pass a Great Reform Bill – not to meet the demand for democracy, but to contain it. The bill would abolish rotten boroughs and introduce MPs for the metropolitan centres, while extending the right to vote to a larger section of property-owning males.
Even this proved too much for the House of Lords, which voted the bill down in October 1831. Riots broke out across the country and several cities were soon in flames: in Derby, the massive castle of the Duke of Newcastle, a forthright opponent of reform, was burned to the ground; in Bristol, armed insurgents effectively seized control of the city for a week, torched four prisons and forced the anti-Reform Bill MP Sir Charles Wetherell – who had sworn to ‘uphold the king’s peace’ against the mob – to flee over the rooftops in his underwear. As the panic spread from Derby and Bristol to London, parliament finally and begrudgingly conceded the (not-so-)Great Reform Act in 1832.
In republican America things went further down the democratic path – white male suffrage was almost universal by 1856. However, women were still barred from American democracy almost everywhere, along with black people, whether enslaved or formally freed.
Even in America, the extent to which some were already seeking to redefine ‘democracy’ and empty it of meaning was illustrated by the role of the misnamed Democratic Party as the champion of slavery in the era of civil war. Future abolitionist president Abraham Lincoln took part in the famous Illinois election debates of 1858 with Democratic Party senator Stephen A Douglas, who sought to twist the meaning of democracy effectively to defend legalised slavery. Douglas claimed that the principle of ‘popular sovereignty’ meant the local white males-only electorate should have the right to vote for the slave system. Since slaves could not vote, they did not count in a democracy. Lincoln dismissed this perversion of popular sovereignty as ‘a living, creeping lie’.
The triumph of President Lincoln’s Union forces in the subsequent American Civil War led in 1870 to the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting the vote to all adult males of whatever race, including former slaves. It was not long, however, before the forces of anti-democracy had regrouped; by the turn of the century, Southern states would be passing ‘Jim Crow’ laws, using poll taxes, literacy tests and other rigged rules to disenfranchise black voters. This stain on US democracy would last until the civil-rights era of the 1960s.
Back in Victorian Britain, it was striking then as now the extent to which, while working-class movements such as the Chartists fought for democracy, among the middle classes even pro-reform liberal voices feared the democratic unleashing of the ‘dregs of the people’ below.
The middle-class horror at such radical ideas as universal male suffrage was not confined to conservatives. Liberal society also recoiled in fear. Amid the riotous agitation in the run-up to the 1867 reform act, liberal author George Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) published her novel Felix Holt, the Radical about the unrest that accompanied the first reform act of 1832 in a Midlands town. It is essentially a warning about the dangers of unleashing democracy when the uneducated masses can be misled by demagogues and political agents seeking to buy their vote with beer. Felix Holt, the alleged ‘radical’, is opposed to giving the vote to the nearby mining community, believing that ‘extension of suffrage… can never mean anything for [working men] but extension of boozing’. Instead, he wants a programme of education and moral improvement to make the masses respectable citizens worthy of society. Such was what passed for ‘radical’ views in the liberal England of the mid-19th century.
More telling was the attitude towards democracy espoused by John Stuart Mill MP, the greatest British philosopher of the Victorian age. To those of us who defend freedom of speech against all-comers today, Mill is a hero of history, a giant on whose shoulders we try to stand, his masterwork On Liberty (1859) an unmatched source of inspiration.
Yet the flipside of Mill’s defence of individual liberty was his fear of ‘the tyranny of the majority’. While accepting the principle of democratic reform, Mill essentially shared the prejudice of Plato. He wrote in 1835 that ‘The best government (need it be said?) must be the government of the wisest, and these must always be a few’. Mill later recalled how his wife Harriet Taylor (a champion of women’s suffrage) and he had growing doubts about universal democracy because they ‘dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass’.
By 1859 in On Liberty, with further electoral reform on the way, Mill had come to accept another Platonic prejudice – that some voters should be deemed superior, not on the basis of their property, but because of their ‘proved-superiority of education’. Under Mill’s weighted voting system everybody, including women, would get one vote, but the educated classes would have more. This is another old elitist idea now coming back into fashion in high places, for example with US professor Jason Brennan’s new proposal that we create an ‘epistocracy’, where everybody has to take a test of ‘basic political competence’ (set by a wise professor no doubt), and the wisest get more votes.
In the 20th century, the slaughter of the First World War wreaked terrible damage on the self-image of the supposedly free and democratic Western states. After the war, mass radical movements of fascism on the right and communism on the left emerged to challenge liberal democracy. The elites blamed the masses for being misled. Yet it was the lack of legitimacy of the formally democratic states, and the contempt which their rulers showed to their people, which gave these mass movements their appeal.
Hitler’s Nazi Party was initially able to gain votes from millions reacting against the bankruptcy of the old parties of the Weimar Republic. Even then, the Nazis did not ultimately win power through the ballot box, but via a deal to appoint Hitler chancellor with the German establishment led by President Hindenberg, who did not trust the old parliamentary parties to contain the threat from the Communists and restore order to the new mass society.
The Western elites’ fear and loathing of the masses in the interwar years showed how little faith they had in the democratic system they claimed to champion. Such elitist attitudes penetrated the ranks of the liberal left and cultural progressives. Beatrice Webb, leading light of the Fabians and one of the intellectual founders of the Labour left, wondered ‘If the bulk of the people were to remain poor and uneducated, was it desirable, was it even safe, to entrust them with the weapon of trade unionism and, through the ballot box, with making and controlling the government of Great Britain with its enormous wealth and far-flung dominions?’.
Intellectuals despised the ignorant masses and the idea that they should decide the future through the ballot box. This attitude was articulated by HG Wells in his book The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. Looking back from an imagined future, Wells sees the 20th century in ‘the dustbin of history’. Democracy has been exposed as a ‘shabby and threadbare religion’ devoted to the worship of ‘that poor invertebrate mass deity of theirs, the Voter’.
For Wells, the only hope was a ‘technocracy’ – rule by experts. But even that could only work once national barriers were removed and replaced by a technocratic world state – not unlike the sort of technocratic, anti-democratic, dehumanising supranational state that some would like the EU to be today.
Yet after the Second World War ended, the West was surprised to find itself enjoying an apparent revival of democracy. With the defeat of fascism and the revelations of the Nazi Holocaust, no serious politician could openly espouse anti-democratic views.
Yet the postwar democracies of the West blamed the fickle masses for their own past failures. Political elites sought new ways to insulate themselves against a revival of popular pressure from the untrustworthy masses. They allotted new powers to expert commissions, constitutional courts and other unaccountable bodies; prominent among these was what would become the European Union, from the first an attempt by Europe’s political classes to find a powerful haven from their disaffected electorates back home.
Some 45 years after the Second World War, Western capitalist democracy appeared to have reached its highest point with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the rival Soviet bloc. Yet Western democracy was the winner only by default. When Francis Fukuyama called his 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man, he was at least half-right; the West had won by being the last man standing. We were soon to be reminded, however, that the history of the struggle for democracy never ends.
Since then, what passes for Western democracy has increasingly been exposed as an empty shell. The D-word has been redefined so that it means little to many of those it claims to represent. The spread of discontent, disengagement and disaffection across Western societies has revealed the yawning chasm between power and the people, never more so than in the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump.
The reaction against this discontent has brought the historical fear and loathing of the masses bubbling back to the surface. Demos-phobia is back in fashion, led by the pseudo-Platos of today’s anti-democratic elites.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and what they’re afraid of, published by William Collins, is due out in early 2017.