Our totalitarian democracy

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Alexander Boot discusses our totalitarian democracy:

In most people’s minds, totalitarianism and democracy are antonyms. Yet the two can happily coexist not only on the same planet but also in the same country. To understand this, we should focus on the essence of totalitarianism, not its incidental manifestations, such as violence.

For elected leaders are also capable of violent oppression. Just look at the democratically elected Hitler, Perón, Mugabe, Putin, Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad and Macîas Nguema (who gratefully murdered a third of the population of Equatorial Guinea that had voted him in).

Conversely, if we define the term rigorously, even a non-violent democracy can be totalitarian. The term should properly apply to any political system that a) concentrates all power within a small elite, b) removes all checks and balances on this power, c) leaves people no viable choice, d) relies on populist brainwashing to change people’s views and personalities, f) reliably elevates to government those unfit to govern.

Each one of these telltale signs is amply observable in today’s Britain and most other so-called democratic states. They all show the dangers resident in a democracy whose power is unchecked by other estates.

The benefits of unchecked democracy are held to be self-evident, which is just as well for they would be impossible to prove either theoretically or empirically. Yet in traditional Western thought even God was regarded as a hypothesis awaiting philosophical and evidential proof. As democracy is not divine, one feels so much more justified in holding it to scrutiny.

First it is important to strip unlimited democracy of its non-partisan mask. Unlike the limited democracies of Hellenic antiquity and Western polity, universal suffrage is a radical idea that came to the fore after man was pronounced to be good to begin with and, what is more, infinitely perfectible.

It followed ineluctably that all good and further improvable people were equally qualified to choose their leaders and govern themselves. Once Americans elevated universal suffrage to secular sainthood, and spread this fideistic notion high and wide, opposition to it became impossible in the West.

But in reality the promise of democracy becomes larcenous when democracy is unchecked by the power of other estates. By atomising the vote into millions of particles, democracy renders each individual vote meaningless. What has any weight at all is an aggregate of votes, a faceless bloc. Consequently, political success in democracies depends not on any talent for statesmanship, but on the ability to put such blocs together.

This has little to do with statesmanship. Coming to the fore instead are a knack for demagoguery, photogenic appearance, absence of principles, ability to lie convincingly, selfishness and an unquenchable thirst for power at any cost.

Tocqueville warned against this with his usual prescience: ‘I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.’ He formed this ideas of American democracy at the time of Jefferson, Adams and Madison, to name but a few. One wonders what Tocqueville would say today, observing our politicians in action. He would certainly feel that what has been realised is not his prophesies but his nightmares.

The ostensibly democratic, but in fact neo-totalitarian, state acquires more power over the individual than any monarch who ruled by divine right ever had. French subjects, for example, were shielded from Louis XIV by many layers of local government, and the Sun King wielded more power over his loftiest courtiers than over the lowliest peasants. It would not have occurred to him to tax his subjects at 75 percent, something that comes naturally to France’s democratic leaders.


  1. James Wilson says:

    “When I stepped ashore in the United States, I discovered with amazement to what extent merit was common among the government but rare among the rulers…. the general and continuous course of government is beneficial even though the rulers are often incompetent and sometimes despicable. It often comes about that only those who feel inadequate in the conduct of their own business undertake to direct the fortunes of the state. It is not always the ability to choose men of merit which democracy lacks but the desire and inclination to do so.”

    “I have made the distinction between two types of centralization; the one called governmental, the other administrative. The first exists solely in America; the second is almost unknown (there). In the United States, the majority, which often has despotic tastes and instincts, still lacks the most developed tools of tyranny. If the direction American societies (took)… combined the right of total command with the capacity of total execution… freedom would soon be obliterated in the New World.”

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