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The Case Against the Democratic State by Gordon Graham & Democracy, Fascism and the New World Order by Ivo Mosley
What’s so hot about democracy? Edward Ingram considers two books which call it into question.
Democracy is usually held to be a good thing, so much so that many people equate democracy with goodness. Two books question this.
Each book attacks the moral worth of the state as its role is currently understood – the idea that governments should be responsible for such things as education, health, and the economy. Each also attacks the moral worth of social democracy.
I’ll start with the more philosophical book.
The Case Against the Democratic State
Graham begins with 17th and 18th century views of government, especially those of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who argued in Leviathan that, without government, society would collapse. Hobbes famously claimed that life without government is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. To Hobbes, society without government is anarchic, and anarchy is bad.
Graham takes issue with Hobbes. First, he says, anthropology tells us that primitive people live relatively peaceful lives, so it appears that, contrary to Hobbes, life without government, in primitive societies at least, is peaceful and prosperous. (Here, he overstates the case: much depends on which culture one examines. Nonetheless, his general point holds.)
Second, if the object of government is to prevent mayhem, government per se was, and remains, far from successful. Government was the major cause of strife in historical times, and it remains the major cause of strife today. Government was responsible for Caligula’s excesses; government was responsible for Stalin’s gulags; government was responsible for Hitler’s death camps; government was responsible for the 30 million who starved to death in Mao Zedong’s China; government is responsible, today, for what is happening in Zimbabwe, Cuba and North Korea.
In these cases (there are countless others), not only was government the cause of the problems, but the problems were worse than anything that could be envisaged without government. People without government might fight, kill, torture, and rape, but when they do so they do so in moderation. It takes government to create mass hatred.
You might object that these cases concerned or concern mad leaders, totalitarian forms of government, or both. We live in a democracy, you might say. Our government could never perpetrate such atrocities – the occasional Vietnam notwithstanding. Maybe. But Graham says this is immaterial. The U.K. government, for one, doesn’t prevent crime.
He illustrates this with a simple statistic. The clear-up rate of crime in the U.K. is 6%, of which most is serious crime – murder, for instance. If you want to be a burglar, shoplifter, mugger, or other petty criminal, odds are high that you’ll get away with it. Yet most people in the U.K., like people in primitive societies, are not burglars, shoplifters or muggers. On the contrary, they are civilized. They queue at supermarkets, for instance; in general, they are polite to one another. So what are the police for? What is government for?
Graham argues, correctly in my view, that government doesn’t only fail to prevent crime: it creates crime. He cites Prohibition in the U.S.A., which created the Mafia. Without Prohibition, or something like it, it is debatable whether organised crime would have got going. Yet, far from learning from the U.S.A.’s mistake, every government in the western world repeated it with laws against the use of cannabis, heroin, cocaine, and other drugs. Such laws do not stop people using drugs: they permit criminals to run the third largest industry in the world (the other two are armaments and oil), and thereby to become super-rich. The consequences for ordinary folk are disastrous.
Graham bases the next part of his argument on Plato’s critiques of democracy in his Republic and Gorgias.
Graham lists three defining features of a democratic state, two of which, at least, would have been recognised by Plato. They are the sovereignty of the people, universal suffrage, and majority rule. The first means that the people within a nation possess the ultimate authority – they have the power to tell politicians what to do. The second means, not that everybody has power, but that as many people as possible have a vote (in Plato’s day, women, slaves, and foreigners had no vote; today, prisoners, the insane, and children have no vote); more important, it means that each vote is of equal worth regardless of individual talents. The third means that decisions reflect the will of the majority.
Plato likened a state to a ship. It does not make sense, he said, to elevate the lowliest seaman to master mariner if the incumbent master mariner is competent and the lowliest seaman incompetent (though Graham does not mention it, in this Plato was prescient: the British held command of the seas during the Napoleonic wars partly because France had elevated lowly sailors to high command). Some people are competent and others are incompetent. Applying this to democracy, one would not take a poll of one’s neighbours’ views to decide which way to cure one’s disease: one would consult a doctor. The will of the people, if enacted, can give rise to stupid decisions.
Graham sees Plato’s argument as unanswerable. To disagree with Plato is either to say everybody is equally intelligent, equally knowledgeable, and equally interested in every issue, or to say that truth changes as a function of passing opinion. The former is absurd; the latter is Orwellian. Graham’s analysis of this is excellent, and his understanding of Plato thorough. Plato anticipated the dangers of postmodernism.
Graham discusses various forms of democracy, the most important of which are liberal democracy and social democracy. A liberal democracy is one in which certain rights – freedom of speech, freedom of religion, libertarian rights, in general – are held inviolate, but one in which decisions of state, provided they do not transgress upon these rights, are determined democratically. Notice that a liberal democracy is not, by Graham’s criteria, a democracy. A liberal democracy is one in which the state can do nothing unless it respects human rights. A social democracy is one in which everything is determined democratically. A social democracy is a ‘true’ democracy. A social democracy is one in which the state can do anything provided it is sanctioned by the majority. In a social democracy, if the majority decides to murder a million people, the state will (or try to) murder the million people; further, by the terms of social democracy, the state has a moral obligation to do so. This is not fanciful. Hitler was a social democrat; today, Robert Mugabe is a social democrat. This is the tyranny of the mob, a central concern of Plato, and a central concern today. To Plato, and to Graham, odds are a social democracy will, sooner or later, violate human liberty.
Liberal democracy seems good, and Graham provides excellent discussion of its origins, particularly the contribution of John Locke (1632-1704). Good as liberal democracy seems, however, Graham points to conceptual difficulties with it. Most important, if the state has a moral imperative not to interfere with human liberties, democratic decisions have no moral imperative. The democratic part of a liberal democracy provides, at best, a practical form of government, not a moral one. This, in effect, reduces the worth of liberal democracy to an empirical issue. It might be that, historically, liberal democracies have provided the best form of government. Against this, liberal democracies – as is the case of the U.K. – tend to evolve into social democracies. Also, there is no logical reason for a benevolent despotism – one that recognises human rights – not to provide as good as, or better, form of government. History provides examples of benevolent despotisms, though they have tended to be short-lived.
Graham’s provides an accurate account of Marxism, and notes that Marxism requires that the state, in taking over the means of production, also takes over matters hitherto left to individuals – health care, education, and so on. This is in order to realise the Marxist utopia of the future, the era when, once the state has done its job, the state will disappear. Perhaps because of Marx’s historical influence, and perhaps because of a liberal democracy dynamic towards social democracy, the effect of this is that social democracies – for which read socialist states – retain the essentials of Marxism, except for the requirement that, eventually, the state will whither away. In this, social democracy demands that individuals be stripped of their liberties in order that the state may act as control-freak forever.
Some say that depriving people of their liberties is acceptable, provided doing so serves some higher cause – building extra hospitals, or somesuch. This is debatable. Once one deprives people of liberties, one deprives them of responsibilities – to educate their children, for instance – and if one deprives people of responsibilities, one deprives them of ethics. This is implicit throughout Graham’s book. The state becomes arbiter on everything that matters. This leads to the next point.
You might have noticed that, when I spoke of social democracy being a true democracy, I placed true in inside inverted commas. This was because, Graham argues, social democracy, far from empowering common people, emasculates them. The more people that vote, the less any single vote counts, and the less any individual can make a mark on the things that matter. In this way, social democracies deprive people of their worth. This is one of the paradoxes of democracy (there are others, and more profound ones, the main one of which Graham discusses). The greater the number of voters, the greater the power of the control freaks. In this, Graham’s treatment of mob rule is careful, and razor-sharp.
This book is political philosophy in the best analytic tradition: it is scholarly; it is clear; it is relevant; it is tightly argued – it does not require a professional philosopher to understand it. I regret that space does not allow me to provide details of its richness.
I have two criticisms. One, Graham is vague about alternatives. By the terms of his arguments, anarchy is the obvious choice. Yet he dismisses it (saying he’s discussed it elsewhere). I’d have liked to have seen a discussion on anarchy. Two, Graham does not discuss Popper’s observation that the function of universal franchise is not to choose good government: it is to remove tyrannical or incompetent government. This latter omission is serious, and detracts from the force of his case.
These criticisms notwithstanding, I hope you read this book. And I hope many others do, too.
Democracy, Fascism and the New World Order
Graham is a philosopher; Mosley is not. The difference shows. Graham’s book is a reasoned argument; Mosley’s is a polemic. Graham’s book takes some time to get into; Mosley’s grabs you from page one.
Mosley is the grandson of the British Blackshirt leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, Britain’s foremost fascist of the 1930s, and as such one would expect Mosley to know much about state oppression. He does. Also, in case you have doubts on the matter, unlike his grandfather, he is all against it. His book is libertarian. It provides factual information to support Graham’s, often abstract, arguments. In essence, Mosley and Graham try to say the same thing.
This said, I found Mosley’s book maddening. It combines brilliant flashes of insight, wit, and lovely examples to support its thesis with cliche and poor scholarship.
First, the good bits.
Mosley provides a nice comparison between Marxism and fascism. He skims over the historical and philosophical antecedents of the development of each, emphasising, correctly, that, whatever their philosophical differences, they have much in common, and in practice they are virtually identical – totalitarianism is totalitarianism, whichever way one looks at it. I am glad that Mosley makes this point: socialists tend to call those who disagree with them fascists, little realising that socialism and fascism are virtually the same.
He’s also good at providing examples of the manner in which the state encroaches on people’s freedom in the name of the greater good. For much of the 19th century, for instance, poor people, via churches, self-help groups, and the like, sent their children to school. There were thousands of such schools throughout the United Kingdom in the 19th century, and nearly all the children emerged from them literate, if not more. The 1870 Education Act, which brought in state education for all, changed this. Parents opposed the Act, Mosley reports – its principle proponents were teachers’ associations – but succumbed: they sent their children to state schools, and paid higher taxes for the privilege. This is the sort of information that, if true, adds bones to Graham’s thesis (Mosley supplies sources).
Mosley is also good on art. Art, as soon as it comes under state patronage – which, in Britain, it now in effect is – ceases to be art, or at least good art. In this, one can view the monstrosities that are entered for the U.K.’s Turner Prize – dead sharks, unmade beds, paintings contrived from dung, and so forth – as akin to the art that adorned the palaces of National Socialist Germany, the former U.S.S.R, and Maoist China. If you feel guilty about not being able to understand Turner Prize art, don’t worry. It’s a latter day version of the junk that Hitler loved. I’m not sure whether Mosley is on solid ground in all he says here, but I think he’s made a thought-provoking analogy: state-sponsored art, including Turner Prize art, is art designed to make people stupid.
Now the book’s faults.
First, Mosley makes mistakes in scholarship. It’s not that he says, for instance, that fascism emerged out of the blue, an “‘inspired creation’ of Mussolini” (it didn’t: its intellectual roots derive from a combination of Hegelian idealism and Bismarkian hegemony). Such ‘mistakes’, if they are mistakes, are forgivable (Mussolini did coin the term fascist – it comes from the Roman fasces, a symbol of power). It’s that he incorporates a rag-bag of contentious issues into his idea that the state is subverting human freedoms. Thus, for example, he sees GM foods as part of the (‘fascist’?) new world order. You may approve of GM foods, or you may disapprove of them, but the issue concerning GM foods is too complex to dismiss in a throwaway couple of sentences, which is what he does. Mosley clutches at fads.
His treatment of sociobiology (‘selfish genery’) is especially unfortunate. He states, in a few lines, that it is on a par in absurdity with the idea that all people are intellectually equal. Whatever you might think of sociobiology, it is not an absurd idea; on the contrary, it is a sophisticated theory within biology, one with thousands of carefully researched studies of human, animal, and plant behaviour to support it. Granted, some well-qualified individuals take issue with some of sociobiology’s claims, but such individuals know better than to dismiss it as a ‘crackpot dogma’. Mosley doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
(Also, he doesn’t know who his friends are. Many supporters of sociobiology – Matt Ridley is one – argue, from principles deriving, not from selfish genes, but from game theory, for exactly the libertarian type of society that Mosley hankers for.)
The most serious flaw in Mosley’s book is his anti-Americanism. A fair chunk of the book concerns the duplicitous, selfserving activities of American big business and government organisations. Much of this is familiar (how American ‘aid’ helps dictatorships), and some is unfamiliar (how the drugs trade helps service American debt). I am not qualified to comment on the worth of all Mosley’s arguments – they are too diverse. Suffice to say that I found his insights fascinating, but that I am suspicious of some of them. The point is that the book, to readers who would normally sympathise with Mosley, might seem like just another anti- American rant. Conversely, the book, to readers who would normally react against Mosley’s views, might seem as corroboration of their views. In either event, Mosley undermines his case: his friends will be put off by it and his enemies won’t see its point.
Do not get me wrong. I am as concerned as anyone about what is happening in America. And I am the last to condone the many idiocies of American domestic and foreign policy, or the dangers that corporate power present to liberty. But all countries are guilty of idiocies, and worse. And he doesn’t speak of the positive side of America. What, ask yourself, would Europe (and the Far East) be like if it hadn’t been for American aid (in lives and in money)? Exactly the type of totalitarian, fascist-cum-Stalinist state that Mosley condemns. And what would Europe do if she didn’t have (American) software, (American) movies, (American) music, (American) literature? Even those who profess to hate America love her goods. And why single out America? What about the European Union? Mosley does mention the EU, but not much. What about China? And what, if it’s ‘cultural imperialism’ that worries you, about the Vatican? Mosley’s book is partisan.
Mosley, in discussing America, commits the same sin as his Marxist enemies. He says that Americans selfcensor dissent – that, for example, Mark Twain’s later works, which were critical of American society, did not sell (he doesn’t consider the possibility that they didn’t sell because they aren’t as good as his earlier works). Hence Americans don’t need a secret police, gulags and so on. This argument is familiar. It was articulated by, among others in the 1960s and 1970s, Herbert Marcuse, America’s leading Marxist philosopher. It says, in effect, that ordinary people – people other than oneself, that is – are stupid. People who say that ordinary people are stupid aren’t, technically, fascists, but they’re so close that it makes little difference.
This makes me sad. Read Mosley’s, in many ways, excellent book. But read it critically.
© EDWARD INGRAM 2004
Edward Ingram was until recently a Fellow in Philosophy at the School of Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor.
• The Case Against the Democractic State by Gordon Graham. (Imprint Academic). 96 pages. £8.95/$17.90. ISBN 090784538X.
• Demcracy, Fascism and the New World Order by Ivo Mosley. (Imprint Academic). 96 pages. £8.95/$17.90. ISBN 0907845649.