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)
 Jacob Talmon, The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1952)
 Jacob Talmon, Romanticism and Revolt (1967)
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