Sunday 10 December 2017

New Wave Anti-Democrats, Aristotle, and Winter Snow

The first snow of winter falls as I hear evasive politicians talk specious rubbish about sovereignty and referenda on the Andrew Marr Show.  I have not watched Game of Thrones, despite my usual enthusiasm for ‘popular culture’, yet one line in it, ‘Winter is Coming’—I am told the motto of the wholly undemocratic House of Stark—has become emblematic for our political times.

Fantine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has to sell her lovely hair and plunges into the last lap of her race to premature death, thus orphaning her little daughter, because she has no money in winter. ‘In winter there is no heat, no light, evening touches morning… Winter changes into stone the water of heaven and the heart of man.’  

My own heart feels turned into stone because not one but four intelligent, educated and mildly famous individuals—a BBC Radio presenter, a young but celebrated theatre director, a Professor of Classics and an MP—have over the last few weeks all said to me privately that they are no longer convinced that democracy is A Good Thing. Two of them cited Aristotle, who says in his Politics that democracy can lead to tyranny. Yes, but democracy is also the constitution that he finds fewest faults with, and which he says fails when there is too much inequality between rich and poor.

Once the leftist-liberal middle class who lead the British thought-world give up on democracy as a system worth preserving, then winter for our sceptred isles may indeed be coming. What concerns me is that these people have never been crypto-oligarchs, like the Etonians in the Tory government, but sincere democrats. I now see that this was only because democracy was producing the results that they wanted. The minute the ‘masses’ start asking for things that such influential opinion-makers don’t like, the system which gives ‘the masses’ some form of say in how things are run must itself be brought into question.

"We can't have housewives deciding things"
All four acquaintances reminded me of Jean Rey, once President of the European Commission, who annoyed me when I was a teenager in 1974 by bemoaning the use of a referendum on EU membership in the UK: ‘I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country should be left to housewives. It should be decided instead by trained and informed people.’
And the trouble is that our modern version of democracy, instead of meaning that the people (demos) gets real executive power (kratos), worked for such successful individuals as now criticise democracy only because it safeguarded the monopoly on most of the money, nice jobs and privileges enjoyed by their (and my) section of the population. There was always going to be a backlash, and in countries like the UK and the USA, creaking public education systems means that the backlash has sometimes been ill-informed.

The problem lies not in democracy as such, but in the ultimate failure of post-war democracy to stop large sections of the population being frozen out of basic necessities of life and a decent education.  Aristotle, who believed everything in nature had an objective, never answered to his own satisfaction exactly what purpose was served by rain and snow in winter. I feel I understand his bewilderment, at least on a metaphorical level.


  1. Although I too am a believer in democracy, I think now is an appropriate time to reflect on its limits and dangers.

    Considering the U.S. situation, perhaps the one positive thing you can say about Donald Trump is that he is legitimately the people's choice.

    The conservative establishment was against him from the beginning, but he beat all of the big money and the respectable front-runners to win the Republican nomination.

    In the general election, he ran an ad hoc, underfunded campaign against the uber-establishmentarian H. Clinton --and won!

    And not only did he win, but the conservative party won, and now dominates all three branches of the U.S. government.

    This did not occur in a coup. This is what people voted for.

    Therefore (though the situation is more complicated than I've presented it) this idea that democracy is right for all people at all times is due for consideration.

    That a demagogue has arisen in the nation which is perhaps democracy's chief cheerleader cannot but be disturbing to the institution itself.

    I don't know about Aristotle, but wouldn't Plato nod in acknowledgment at Trump's election?

    Thank you for your blog.

  2. This is not just true for a straw poll of the privileged the Washingtom Post and Guardian have both run articles over the past 18 months containg the results of various studies that show rather clearly that support for democracy is on the wane with millennials. Down from 74.9% for those born in the 1960s to 57.1% for those born in the 1980s and the rate of support even looks like it might be declining at an increasing rate.

    The Harvard-based author of the WAPO article argues that "complacency has been the dominant response of Western elites to the looming threats of Brexit, of Donald Trump and of the rise of illiberal politics. The comforting assumption that the past will remain a reliable guide to the future — that countries would not vote for extreme candidates when they never have before, or indeed that core norms of liberal democracy wouldn’t come under attack where democracy has always been “the only game in town” — hasn’t worked out very well so far", and she goes on to decry complacency. And she is wrong. Wrong because she implies that the way to save democracy is liberal/progressive resistance when in fact privileged, powerful, complacent, self-seeking liberals (including many on the right of politics) who know so much better than the "housewives" are those responsible for nearly every failing which has undercut support for democracy. Hence, the growing support amongst people for a "Strong Leader" who is appears to stand apart from the ruling elite (real or imagined).

    Since I don't particularly want to be trolled by dull people who think themselves much smarter than they actually are I am going to avoid making any suggestion as to how this problem can be addressed, but suffice it to say there is no indication that the political class are up to it.