U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Problem with Democracy (take three)

The following are some thoughts I laid down in some haste after preparing for my first discussion section of the year. It occurred to me to add this to the series of two posts I wrote about democracy a while ago (1,2). Please forgive the brevity and the spirit of coffee table polemics.

Historians usually cast the emergence of the notion—or fiction as Edmund Morgan would have it—that sovereignty lies with the people, or that there is such a thing as ‘the people’ in the first place, as a positive liberating development. Originating in corporate notions held by commoners and by way of an ascendant middle class, these novel attitudes lay at the heart of the great transformations which in the western world left archaic and more authoritarian forms of government by the wayside. Thus we tend to view democracy, by and large, as a positive development in the history of ideas and of politics.

However, as historians know well, the formulation of the democratic era of modernity as a positive linear development all too often does not hold water. We do not need Foucault to perceive that to a large degree the Enlightenment failed to deliver the goods. How do we explain the World Wars? How do we explain the colonial projects that brought the supposedly noble notion of democracy to the rest of the world, even as it wreaked havoc and genocides around the globe? And only historians of the future—if they will still be around—will be able to evaluate the environmental damage wrought by democracy’s attendant economic system of capitalism.

What if the problem with democracy is that we do not understand well enough the historical context in which it emerged? Perhaps we have for too long thought of the darker and brighter sides of the enlightenment as incidental rather than complementary? In other words, what if the problem with democracy is that its very roots are more dark than enlightened?

Usually when intellectual historians discuss what they deem as the peculiar slippery slope that seems to link Enlightenment ideas concerning the people with totalitarian terror they focus on Rousseau’s idea of “the general will.” However, such discussions of the underbelly of the enlightenment as in, for instance, Jacob Talmon’s classic formulation of “totalitarian democracy,” usually portray this peculiar development as one of the ironies of history; a result of the peculiar and counterintuitive genealogy of ideas.(1) Indeed, for intellectual historians who have a vested interest in affording ideas articulated by “intellectuals” a powerful and almost autonomous role in history, the quite genuine project pursued by enlightenment thinkers cannot appear machiavellian; it mustn’t.

I am now a teaching assistant for a class on modern European history and as I was reviewing my notes for a class on the Enlightenment it struck me that I might have gotten it all wrong. Granted, I usually tended to summarize the Enlightenment for the benefit of undergraduate students in quite facile terms: the bourgeoisie started thinking in new and more rational ways about the world and challenged the claims of kings and nobles to inherited and arbitrary authority. Examining the problems entertained by eighteenth century thinkers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, or Adam Smith, however, it seemed to me that justice, broadly construed, was not always foremost in their minds. What perhaps most concerned them—even before morality—was the power of the nation state. Thinkers often seemed to prioritize through discussions of political economy the ways to enhance the powers of the nation state and found in the fiction of the people a compelling instrument.

When the French Revolution broke out and gave the modern world its first fully mobilized nation state it was the idea of the sovereignty of the people that above all else stood at the center of this mobilization. When Britain became an empire in the eighteenth century it was above all else its ability to rally its economy and a critical mass of its populace behind the notion that their government was the best the world had to offer that seemed to give it an edge in the struggle for power.

This is in no way an exhaustive argument, and perhaps others made it before me, but what if the problem with democracy is that from its inception it was more of a tool of the nation state than vice versa? To be sure Talmon himself to a certain extent realized this predicament and its resolution—or lack thereof—in the failures of the 1848 revolutions, what he called “the year of the trial.” And though Talmon argued that nationalist liberals such as Mazzini or Herder sincerely tried to reconcile liberalism and nationalism, his conclusions focus more upon nationalism—an idea—than the nation state as an historical agent in a modern period that above all else was dominated by a scramble for power by nation states.(2)

[1] Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952)

[2] Jacob Talmon, Romanticism and Revolt (1967)

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. this is a great and bold series of reflections.

    doesn’t talmon continue his story up into the fascist period? (myth of the nation…) and isn’t the argument, writ large, that indeed after 1848 it was not really possible to maintain the synthesis of liberalism and nationalism that people like mazzini really did support? this is why the italian fascists could, in the end, take mazzini and garibaldi as their own? (and, incidentally, one reason gramsci had to spend so long worrying about the risorgimento?). the nation–a nicely hegelian concrete universal–was not to be sidelined, and was to be eventually ethno-national, not cultural-national. again with the italians the line is especially difficult–gentile was absolutely a cultural nationalist, not a racist in any interesting sense (as far as i know), and enrolled himself into actually-existing fascism.

    but, and maybe i’m wrong about this, but isn’t this story all motivated, by the 1960s, by talmon’s own deep ambivalences about the (democratic state of) the state of israel? this is one reason he sounds different from his cold war liberal cohort–isaiah berlin, say–it matters, in 1970, whether you’re writing in oxford or tel aviv! (this is not my idea, there is work on this, although maybe not exactly in these terms).

    bringing the 18th century back in, although maybe he’s been mentioned already, (and again with the italians!) i think domenico losurdo’s liberalism book insists fairly powerfully on the constitutively anti-egalitarian elements of even egalitarian liberalism.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful response. I would love to see anything written on Talmon and Berlin or even Leo Strauss for that matter. That makes for a great comparison. I can’t say I know enough about Talmon’s engagement with Zionism–though I should.
      As for Losurdo, I really need to finally read his book on liberalism, been meaning to for a while.

  2. Eran,
    Wow, so much to chew on here–this was immensely provocative and I really enjoyed reading it and wrestling with your ideas.

    Forgive me if the following argument may seem too unfocused or speculative. But one thing that it occurs to me in response to your critique of democracy is that there often seems to be a slippage between an argument (which I take to be Talmon’s, though I haven’t read him and need to do so) that certain horrors of the modern age have an intellectual grounding in enlightenment or democratic thought, on the one hand, and on the other hand an implication that, absent the democratic revolutions, nothing like the World Wars, or European colonialism, or global environmental degradation would have occurred. The latter claim to me seems to me quite dubious; it presumes that the democratic revolutions really wiped away all traces of any former political, intellectual, and moral order, and thus that racism or militarism or expansionism or indifference to the non-human world were unique to, or entered a wholly new phase under democracy.

    I am left wondering about this slippage in part because of what you say at the end: “what if the problem with democracy is that from its inception it was more of a tool of the nation state than vice versa?” To me, if this were true it would militate against putting democracy in the dock as the perpetrator of these horrors, rather than bring an immediate indictment. If democracy has been a sort of dependent variable (to switch metaphors), then it seems likely that the nation state could have just located and deployed some other political technology to extend its ability to motivate and mobilize large numbers of people to fill its various ends. Democracy, in other words, was an expedient, but is not the root cause of these horrors.

    Or maybe I’m missing a crucial link of your argument here. Thank you, anyway, for such a rich provocation!

    • Thanks for these great points. As I see it what makes democracy particularly culpable is its ability to mobilize the citizenry to the cause of the state. When the nation state stumbled upon that maneuver it had explosive consequences (The French Revolution was the first of many). Democracy, as we know it, assumes the notion of “the people” as an abstraction that usually does more to cover up than to clarify. This abstraction, so closely tethered to democracy, both as an historical phenomenon and as an ideal, is at the heart of the problem, I think. So I agree it is not the root cause but it is the myth of democracy–operating as a smoke screen–that has delivered the “goods.”

      • Eran,
        That’s a very fair point, but I guess I would counter, was democracy the only way such mobilizations of the citizenry could have occurred? Obviously any answer would have to be speculative, but I feel that the answer we might make to that question matters a great deal in terms of the way we might imagine what a desirable politics would look like (then and now). If the argument is that democracy was the only political form in which this mobilization could have occurred then, yeah, I would say that’s pretty damning. But otherwise…

      • Andy, I think you are right. The most important question is what “a desirable politics would look like?” I also think that there is no point in denouncing democracy without recognizing its brighter elements. I’m not sure about the counter factual aspect of this, though that’s a fascinating–if highly theoretical–question. But I do think that what we must insist on is that we construct a vision of democracy that is squarely rooted in the pursuit of justice and dismiss all the obstructing clutter.

  3. Although your focus is on 19th century Europe, I wonder if your next piece will be dealing with John Brewer’s Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English State, 1688-1783 and Max Edling’s wonderful monograph on the U.S. Constitution entitled, A Revolution in Favor of Government: Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State. I must confess, I am curious to see how the non early Americanists here would react to its thesis.

    I am also wondering how you assess the work of Oxford’s Re-imagining Democracy project. Their first book Re-imagining Democracy in the Age of Revolutions: America, France, Britain, Ireland 1750-1850 came out a few years ago and their next work shall deal with the Mediterranean from 1750-1860.

    • Though I like both books and Brewer’s book has certainly informed this discussion of the darker aspects of democratization processes in conjunction with the nation state, I am planning a post about agency and history. I do plan, however, to allude to some of these themes in the round table I’m participating in at the upcoming conference.
      As for the Re-imagning democracy project, that’s the first I’ve heard of it. Thanks. I’ll check it out.

      • You’re welcome. I hope that you find the book on England, Ireland, and the U.S. useful and enjoyable. I hope your library has a copy.

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