Democracy and its discontents

I’ve been reading The Problem of Democracy, a new translation of a short book by the French writer Alain de Benoist.

“Democracy,” even more than “inclusiveness” or “social justice,” is viewed as an incontestable fundamental good today. Everybody seems to agree it’s how things have to be. Nonetheless—or maybe therefore—most people don’t think about it very closely. Some have done so, however, and the evident point of this book is to summarize and reflect on what they have said, and suggest what to make of it.

As a compendium of thinkers, issues, and lines of thought relating to democracy—its nature, appeal, definitions, contradictions, and failures—the book should be quite useful for many people. The author covers a great many topics, on the whole clearly and intelligently, and I found it well worth reading as an exploration of the landscape. His overall message seems to be that it is participation rather than equality or formal structure that makes a regime democratic, and that the view currently dominant, which identifies democracy with freedom and makes the regime currently dominant the truest and most advanced form of democracy, really doesn’t make much sense.

The organizational aspects of the book are less satisfying. The discussion is often a bit of this and a bit of that, with less sense of overall structure and argument than one would like. In reading this book it is more useful to pick and choose and bring one’s own thoughts to the analysis than to submerge oneself in the point of view presented. (The author tries to make up for the somewhat rambling presentation by adding a “Postface,” Ten Theses on Democracy, that summarize his main points.)

The practical conclusions seem sensible enough on the whole—mostly a matter of greater emphasis on subsidiarity and on participation in relatively autonomous local institutions. He also speculates, somewhat abstractly I thought, on how use of the plebiscite and referendum might be expanded.

The theoretical conclusions, to the extent they exist, are sometimes marred by quirks of the European New Right. They view universalism as the great threat, which may be right, but they also view Christianity as responsible for its growing tyranny over Western thought. In fact, though, it was the overthrow and not the triumph of Christendom that led to the current war against particularity.

The answer to one-sided universalism is not getting rid of universals. Universality is an attribute of rational thought that long preceded Christianity in Europe. It can go to extremes, so it needs a further principle or setting to keep it in its place. Catholicism, a hierarchical and sacramental religion based on a transcendent personal God who created the world, called it good, and became incarnate in a single man, satisfies that need by enforcing the importance of particulars.

The distaste for universals leads to other problems as well. Benoist insists that politics is an autonomous field of activity with its own standards that can’t be reduced to economics or morality. He’s no doubt right, but politics still needs to be understood in relation to the patterns and purposes of human life in general. What is the function of democracy in that connection? Why bother with it? He doesn’t suggest an answer, but only says that he prefers the Greek to the contemporary understanding of democracy because it’s more historically correct—the Greeks used the word first, so they have dibs on it.

In spite of such complaints, it’s a useful book. Benoist covers a lot of ground, and he and the ENR maintain a critical distance from current preconceptions that enables them to raise issues and make comments that are often very helpful in understanding our present situation. The publisher deserves thanks for bringing out this translation.

4 thoughts on “Democracy and its discontents”

  1. Alain de Benoist is one of
    Alain de Benoist is one of the heavyweight thinkers in Europe, despite having espoused a bit too much unfiltered thoughts from the left, including negative attitude towards Christianity, reflexive anti-Americanism and fairly liberal immigration views. On the other hand his local and ethnic politics are gratifying. Two articles related to the subject; it seems that I am quite close to Athenian democrat in my views:

    More articles from de Benoist:

  2. A Win/Win Situation
    Jim Kalb writes: “Democracy,” even more than “inclusiveness” or “social justice,” is viewed as an incontestable fundamental good today. Everybody seems to agree it’s how things have to be.”

    Well, perhaps nearly everybody seems to agree it’s how things ought to be. As Kenneth Minogue observes*, the project to equalize the entire world cannot proceed without democratic institutions. Democracy began as a criticism of an earlier world; now it’s a description of an ideal society that gives people what they want. So we get the happy coincidence of a virtuous political system which exists to give people what they desire. To parrot a vulgar expression: It’s a Win/Win situation.

    *see his recent book, “The Servile Mind” (How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life), page 51.

    • Institutions and standards
      It’s less democratic institutions than democracy as an ideal standard that is the problem. The former are always limited by whatever the ideal standard is, as we can see in the development of constitutional law in the United States and for that matter the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran. So it’s the ideal standard that gives a society its character.

  3. Hard to read this kind of book
    I’m finding it harder and harder to get myself to read this kind of book, even on subjects which interest me, even when I find the proximate analysis broadly valid; where I disagree with the deep premises, and the solution to the problem is therefore just some kind of new (or not new) technocratic twiddle.


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