[…] A widely accepted definition, not accurate though, states that the word “utopia” denotes a political project which is idealistic in its intentions, but completely unrealistic, impractical and incompatible with human experience. The writers of utopias are therefore usually looked down as naïve sentimentalists or feared as dangerously inhuman social engineers.
This definition is wrong. None of the great utopians created blueprints for a good society with the assumption that those blueprints were completely devoid of practical value. None of them considered himself to be a dreamer, deliberately separating himself from and ignoring all lessons of human experience. What indeed would have been the point of such fantasies? Who would have devoted the time and energy to create political projects which were politically useless? The writers of utopias knew, of course, very well, and often admitted that given the circumstances, the implementation of their projects was difficult, extremely difficult or even unlikely. Yet they never had the slightest doubt about their functional value and their intention was to put them to practice.
Utopia is thus not a political fantasy but a bold project, bolder than others because it aims at a solution to all the basic problems of collective life that humanity has been facing since it began to organise itself politically. Utopia is – I beg the reader’s pardon for such a vile-sounding phrase – the final solution. Therefore, following the implementation of the utopian project, injustice, poverty, tyranny and other political sins will disappear once and for all. Their disappearance will be structural, and will not depend on contingent factors.
The first utopias were written in the Renaissance, the period when the belief in human greatness was the primary article of faith as well a major intellectual and artistic incentive. The message was simple – man can achieve greatness and be equal to God, because he has an unlimited creative potential. Yes, he can fall lower than the beasts, but he can also reach higher than ever before as there is no upper limit to knowledge or art. The greatness thesis could lead to another argument. While it is true that great artists created extraordinary works of painting, music and literature, and also superb works in mathematics, philosophy, physics, it is equally true that there is one area where the human genius has not yet appeared – politics. Why not then create a great political work of art? Why not devise a political construction that would be comparable to other great human achievements? Utopia was precisely to be such a political masterpiece. To put it differently: since the human race gave the world Dante, Plato and Aeschylus, and later Bach, Shakespeare and other geniuses, it is high time it had its genius of political creation. The fact that so far no political masterpiece had been created did not mean that creativity in politics was an exception to human greatness, but that the attempts were not sufficiently vigorous or that such a great political artist had not yet been born.
Communism was to be such masterpiece. It is true that Karl Marx viewed utopias with contempt, attributing the term “utopian” to his socialist opponents, invariably with the attitude of annoyance. He used this word in a colloquial sense however, which gave him grounds to accuse previous generations of socialists of a faulty reading of reality. They naïvely believed – in fact they did not, but this is what he said – that socialism would triumph simply by its own intrinsic righteousness. And this belief he angrily rejected: the mere attractiveness of a political ideal does not make it practically feasible. The world – he said – is not malleable to human whims, and any change must derive from an accurate description of the objective laws according to which the world develops.
After this rather simple-minded criticism he felt entitled to refer to his own theory as “scientific”, which was later repeated with delight by his followers: from Engels, Lenin through Stalin and to the teachers of Marxism in the Soviet bloc countries. The scientific nature of socialism, however, had been dubious from the start because it was not clear what science was behind it and what it was supposed to justify. Such a science, of course, did not exist. The most that can be said was that socialism was backed by some sort of theory of society and history, which in no case was scientific and its justification of socialism as a political structure did not even meet the criteria of a decent argument. Thus, serious scholars of Marx’s socialism – such as Leszek Kołakowski – had no doubt that it was a utopia. It was the utopian and not the scientific nature that made the Marxist version of communism so phenomenally popular.
The utopianism of liberal democracy is not so obvious. Besides liberalism and democracy are not related to utopian thinking in the same way. Initially, liberalism, especially in some economic versions, seemed anti-utopian as it precluded any perfect and ultimate form of economic order. Free-market economy was even called the dismal science to emphasise the gloomy aspect of its consequences. But there were also highly optimistic versions according to which free market was seen as a miraculous instrument to eliminate war and bring about the global brotherhood of humanity in a future era of commerce. Commerce – it will be recalled – was seen as the trademark of the new civilisation of peace, wealth and stability.
In the twentieth century, especially after the Great Depression, free market liberalism was pushed out of the mainstream until the late Seventies, when it experienced a triumphant revival. Political liberalism, on the other hand, also had lost its reputation in the first decades of that century, giving way to various forms of authoritarianism, but later re-emerged in the form of liberal democracy. But in spite of its marginalisation liberalism survived, and even managed – especially in some authors – to retain its allure of utopianism.
This rediscovery of liberal utopianism, especially in free market theories, can be easily explained. It is enough to imagine a liberal order in its simplicity – free market without any state intervention, and individual rights unregulated by the state except the general rules of cooperation – and to realise that these simple mechanisms have never really been tried. For some liberals such simplicity will be tempting, precisely because the liberal solution has never been applied in undiluted form; there were always compromises with other political and economic systems, with traditionally inherited institutions, or with people’s conservatism. But once we do away with the mitigating factors, and try the free market solution uncompromisingly and radically, we will have a pure system, a splendidly simple and universally applicable mechanism to solve all major problems. In short, we will have a utopia.
The utopian tendency had yet an extra dimension. Economic liberals could not get over the popularity of socialism, which they considered a completely irrational idea, but which for the reasons they tried to explain – without being satisfied with their own explanations – managed to touch the hearts and minds of millions of people throughout the world. This tremendous success of their main enemy made them critically reassess the previous methods by which the free marketers wanted to win the popular support. The failure of the free market in the contest of popularity, they thought, was precisely that – contrary to socialism – it never existed in its simple and pure form, and it never existed in such a form because of the weakness and half-heartedness of its message. And so they concluded: if the free market is presented not timidly, apologetically and cowardly, but in proud openness as an optimal answer to every important problem, if it officially, as it were, enters into an ideological race with socialism as a superior all-encompassing formula, it must win and will win. Once the economic liberals drew this conclusion, they deliberately and consciously started using the term “utopia” to what they were advocating. After all, what can be more attractive than a utopia that works? And work it must – they said.
Some liberals could not even conceal their bewilderment that such a fantastic project as theirs, giving everyone, literally everyone, the freedom to pursue their own desires, had not yet caught human imagination strongly enough. So they openly spoke of a liberal utopia to promote what they thought to be the only utopia worth the name. Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick and many other libertarians did precisely this. It went far beyond the realm of the free market. As Nozick wrote in his famous work under the symptomatic title, Anarchy, State and Utopia, what the liberals advocated was not just another utopia, but rather a utopia of utopias, or in other words, a regime which would include all other regimes, a final order incorporating all other orders. With this the dispute continuing for millennia about which system is supreme would be finally resolved. The utopia of utopias would offer a place for everyone to have and strive for his own concept of a utopia, for socialists and conservatives, royalists and egalitarians, and for everyone else. The utopia of all utopias is – as Nozick claimed – “the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one”, the state “that best realises the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries”. To call it a utopia of utopias is to give it “lustre… to thrill the heart or inspire people to struggle or sacrifice … to man barricades under its banner”.
It is hard to deny that the liberal utopia of utopias is an ingenious concept, but to say that it failed to ignite the fire in the minds of the people is to be incomprehensibly generous. It just did not work at all: it moved no political emotions and inspired no movement of any significance. The contrary is true: the libertarian programme had practical effect only to the degree it refrained from utopian aspirations and limited itself to very down-to-earth matters such as taxation, deregulation and community rights. The conclusion is undeniable: absolute and unlimited liberalism is not self-sustainable for the simple reason that the real individuals living in the real world have never wanted it and it is highly unlikely they ever will.
Democracy did not have obvious links with the utopian thinking. Since antiquity, democracy had been considered as one of the defective systems; not better but certainly not worse than oligarchy or monarchy. Plato and Aristotle gave us an insightful critical analysis of it, taking as evidence the functioning of the democratic experience in ancient Athens. Much of what they said has a lot of validity today even though the ancient democracy differed considerably from what passes for a democratic regime today. Plato and Aristotle were not the only critics of the system. In fact it is extremely difficult to find a classical philosopher who would be a defender of democracy. Democritus was one of the few; some also mention Protagoras, although his democratic credentials are highly problematic.
The ancient philosophers’ primary question was what makes the best regime. Democracy certainly did not qualify. Why not? The answer was simple. They thought democracy was a messy system, systematically undermining the rule of law, profoundly partisan, often hostile to the most prominent leaders and citizens. The famous defence of democratic Athens delivered by Pericles in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War is in fact more a defence of Athens and Athenian imperialism than that of the democratic political model. When Plato and Aristotle wrote their scathing remarks about the Athenian system, they thought it was already in decline and Athens may soon become a victim of the crisis from which it would not be able to recover. And this is exactly what happened.
In early modernity, this classical view of democracy did not change much. Political thinkers were interested in why and how the state comes about, how it should work, how to secure its stability, and who is the sovereign. In all these considerations, the problem of democracy was relegated to a secondary or even tertiary place. The ancient theory that democracy was a defective system was not challenged. When the Founding Fathers were creating the foundations of the American Republic, they treated democracy – as well as other political models – with great suspicion and therefore devised a complex political mechanism which was to alleviate its weaknesses. When, however, Tocqueville observed the same society a few decades later, he had no doubts about its democratic character. By then, democracy had not only driven out all political alternatives and become the sole ruler of the American mind, but revealed itself in such an imposing way that the democratic scenario seemed to the French aristocrat to be the destiny of all Western societies. Such a perspective did not make him happy and he finished his book on a clearly pessimistic note: democracy was more a problem than a solution. What he saw at the end of the democratic road was a new despotism, different from earlier despotic regimes, invisible but dangerously enslaving people’s minds, accepted willingly by the demos as the most genuine representation of the people’s desires.
An unconditional praise of democracy – absurd in the light of classical political theory – was for a long time first and foremost an American specialty. At the beginning it had – to a certain extent – strong anti-European overtones. Europe was seen as hopelessly monarchical and aristocratic, the disease from which, as it was claimed, America liberated itself, and having done this it had no choice but to turn itself towards democracy. In the twentieth century, John Dewey was perhaps the first thinker who went furthest in this praise, making democracy not only the value that stood very high, but also building a comprehensive theory of human thought and action around it. Dewey made democracy a key to understand epistemology, psychology, anthropology. He also – that is what he primarily was famous for – made democracy a model and a goal of education and of human development in general. His use of the notion of democracy was strange, even bizarre, although it effectively fitted the American cultural context and, unfortunately, was enthusiastically applied to the system of education. He hoped that making democracy a general pattern of every part of social life would generate an explosion of creativity, of freedom, of thriving individualism. The strangest thing in this view was that the author seemed to have never encountered either the work of Tocqueville or the ancient authors writing on democracy. His enthusiasm for democracy was fed by a total unawareness of the problems which democracy brought with itself and which had occasioned brilliant analyses written by the best minds of the Western civilisation.
However, the global triumph of democracy – the liberal democracy actually – had to wait a little longer. E. M. Forster is famous for saying that it deserved two cheers, not three, which is exactly as many as Irving Kristol granted to capitalism several decades later. In his famous aphorism, Churchill indirectly acknowledged the old truth that democracy was not a political masterpiece, though – and it was something new – he seemed to hint that democracy was superior to other regimes, which was tantamount to granting it the position it had never occupied before.
A few decades later all ambiguities were gone, and if the slogan “three cheers for democracy” came from nobody’s pen, it was only because there were better compliments at hand. Democracy was spoken of – by Pierre Rosanvallon, among others – as an “unfinished project”, that is, a project that was constantly being revised, still undergoing improvements, never completed and still allowing a lot of room for human creativity. It was a democracy constantly democratising itself so as to surpass democracy (or something equally vague, almost meaningless). Similar remarks about democratic democracy or démocratie à venir, or democracy so democratic that it continues to go beyond democracy, were to be found in Derrida. Finally, the word “utopia” had to appear and it did. The man who called the liberal-democratic political system a utopia was John Rawls, the greatest of the greatest authorities to all the supporters, advocates and analysts of the system, and the maker of what might be called today’s liberal-democratic orthodoxy. When he said it, no one was surprised. With his clear Anglo-Saxon mind, Rawls expressed in public what many had been thinking for some time, but did not dare to speak out.
Let us return for a moment to Churchill’s famous quote. It comes from the speech that he delivered at the British House of Commons in 1947 and reads as follows: Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
This statement had a life of its own and was repeatedly twisted or modified according to the intentions of those invoking it. Two versions with two different interpretations stand out. The first one is a mild paradox: “democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others”. The sentence contains two main pieces of information about democracy standing in a paradoxical relation to each other: democracy is flawed (after all, it is the worst) and at the same time it is superior to other regimes (therefore, it turns out not to be the worst because the others are even worse). If we assume that the first piece of information is more important, then the lesson drawn from Churchill’s statement would partly concur with what the ancients wrote about the power of the people: that it is a highly imperfect system, and therefore requires great vigilance and implementation of corrective mechanisms which may also be undemocratic. Churchill did not identify any particular fault of democracy, but one could read into it a suggestion of moderate scepticism and moderate criticism of democratic procedures. This interpretation coincides more or less with what E. M. Forster wrote, when he said that democracy deserves only two cheers. But it was not that message of scepticism and criticism, however toned down, which won the hearts of millions of supporters of democracy around the world.
Another conclusion that was drawn, different from the previous one, gained much larger support. The reasoning was simple: it was enough to treat the second piece of information as a basic one – that all other regimes are more defective – and to ignore completely the first part – that democracy also has many faults. This gave the conclusion an unambiguously pro-democratic meaning: not that democracy is the least objectionable of all regimes, but that it is the best one. And if it is the best, its defects are negligible. And with this twist of meaning any criticism of democracy becomes unfounded, and any critic – irresponsible and not worth listening to: there is no sense in criticising something that by definition is superior to alternatives. The crowning step of this reasoning was that whatever the shortcomings of democracy, they can be removed by more democracy; the best cannot be corrected by anything but the best.
When we take a look at each conclusion separately in the above reasoning, we can easily see that they in fact constitute a series of unsubstantiated claims. The sequence of the steps is as follows:
(i) all systems other than democracy are worse than democracy;
(ii) democracy is the best political system;
(iii) democracy must not be criticised because such criticism may undermine something for which there is no better alternative;
(iv) only democracy is acceptable, and therefore all changes and adjustments in democracy can be performed by democratic means;
(v) the remedy for the weaknesses of democracy is more democracy.
Each subsequent step was made by adding more content to the previous one, which resulted in a gradual departure from the initial statement, which created – finally – a huge chasm between proposition (i) and proposition (v). Proposition (i) expressed a rather sceptical view about all regimes including democracy whose advantage over rivals was its somewhat less imperfect nature. Proposition (v) is an enthusiastic declaration of faith in democracy and absolute condemnation of everything undemocratic. Someone who asserted (i) cannot – without violating logic – smoothly pass to assert (v).
This last assertion’s absurdity leaps to the eye, but in spite of that it is today regarded, surprisingly, as an expression of a profound political wisdom. To see this absurdity, no special insight is needed: the excess of anything is never good. After all, no one will claim that the shortcomings of oligarchy can be removed by extending oligarchy; flaws of tyranny by expanding tyranny; defects and disadvantages of monarchy by increasing the element of monarchy. Nobody in his right mind will claim that progressive monopolisation is a cure for monopoly, and that the remedy for anarchy is more anarchy. Why then, if we agree that democracy has its weaknesses, such weaknesses would be reduced by having more democracy? In what way will more democracy reduce, for example, democratic vulgarity, or the cult of mediocrity, or the weakening of the social customs and traditions, or the overproduction of legislation, or the omnipresent spirit of partisanship penetrating every aspect of life? If the increasing role of the masses led to the vulgarisation of culture, why would an even greater importance of the same masses lead to the refinement of culture? If democracy introduces yet further groups in the political and legislative process, and provides them with the tools to secure their interests through legislation, which, in turn, leads to legislative excesses, then why would the increased number of these groups and their increased influence generate legislative restraint? And so forth, and so on.
Let us note that a similar rhetoric was used in communism. The communist rulers and propagandists when faced with the notoriously recurring symptoms of the decay of the system, euphemistically called “distortions”, always said that these resulted from the deviation from socialism and that we needed more genuine socialism to set things right. Strangely enough this rhetoric became contagious and was used also by those who rebelled against the system. They did so not only for tactical reasons but out of a deep conviction that socialism in its pure form is an optimal and non-replaceable system and that it includes its own tools for self- repair. No empirical experience could support this claim – in fact the opposite seemed truer and truer every day – but evidence has usually little value against a strong political faith.
Both claims: the cure for the problems of socialism is more socialism and the cure for the deficiencies of democracy is more democracy – should be therefore treated not as propositions, but as manifestations of political piety, and, to be more terse, of political sanctimoniousness. In democracy it serves to create such a state of mind where a citizen feels an inner compulsion to emphasise – in public and in private – the absolute superiority of democracy (a feeling quite similar to that of a communist citizen towards his political system), to dispel any doubts about this superiority, to delegitimise as an act of reprehensible disloyalty, any attempt to consider non-democratic corrective options, if only in the forms of intellectual experiments. A person with such an attitude to democracy will probably not use the world “utopia”, but there is no better word to denote the system he has been taught to revere.
But Churchill’s statement can also have another interpretation: “democracy is not good, but a better system has not yet been invented”. To many people today this sentence is unquestionably true, but it is patently false. Of course a better system was invented, and it happened, conceptually, in antiquity as a result of a long debate about the best political regime. The first idea appeared in Plato’s late works and was further developed by Aristotle.
The argument of the ancient thinkers was simple, and it arose from an accurate observation, well-grounded in political experience, that most regimes are defective by being one-sided, that is, by going too much in one direction determined by the specificity of the group that exerts the predominant influence in the functioning of the system; this observation – one could say – anticipated Churchill’s view (or rather, Churchill’s view reiterated, in a slightly changed form, the classical insight). The ancients distinguished three basic types of regimes: a monarchy (a one man rule), an oligarchy called sometimes aristocracy (a minority rule) and democracy (a majority rule), and regarded each of them as good in some aspects and deficient in other aspects. Each system then, while being superior to the alternatives, was also inferior to them. For example, the advantage of the monarchy was that it simplified the decision-making process and gave it greater consistency; its disadvantage, among other things, was the danger of tyranny; the advantage of oligarchy was its educational elitism and its disadvantage a possible subordination of the public interest to that of a minority group; the advantage of democracy was its representativeness and its disadvantages anarchy and factionalism.
A possible solution of the problem of one-sidedness was to mix the three types. One could therefore devise a political structure which combined monarchy, oligarchy and democracy in such a way that they would foster the advantages and neutralise the disadvantages of each. We would then have, for example, a democratic representativeness but at the same time some oligarchic-aristocratic institutions which would preserve some form of elitism as well as some form of monarchy guaranteeing the efficiency of governance. Such combination depended on the ingenuity of the politicians and the character of a particular society, and could produce a variety of hybrid political forms. When Cicero referred to this mixed regime, he used the name res publica. This was the beginning of a very important republican tradition in Western civilisation.
In its modern versions, republicanism moved along complex paths, sometimes losing the original meaning (especially when used solely as shorthand for revolutionary antimonarchism) but the main message given to it by the ancients was often preserved. The political community organised as a republic was a structure containing various elements, in which a democratic component is just one of them. Even the American system, which today is regarded as the exemplary embodiment of representative democracy, was established as a hybrid construction. Some of the Founding Fathers regarded it as a major problem how to limit the rule of the demos and how to secure the proper role of the aristocratic element whose responsibility was the defence and the propagation of ethical and political virtues. Tocqueville contemplated a similar problem, which seemed to him even more pressing, considering that he saw the advent of democracy as irresistible; in the new times that were approaching it then became a matter of utmost urgency to inject some aristocratic spirit into an ever more egalitarian society. Some suggestions that appeared along the way – from the lawyers to the university professors as the carriers of the aristocratic virtues – turned out completely misplaced as both of these groups willingly and joyously capitulated before the marching forces of democracy, or non-democracy, depending on the circumstances.
Even in the twentieth century, approximately up to the thirties, this hybrid view of political regimes was still quite widespread, although the word “democracy” started making its rapid career, becoming not just a description but also the norm. This meant moving away from thinking about the political regimes in terms of pros and cons to the idolatry of one type of political arrangement whose flaws were systematically disregarded. With time, it has become a common practice, unfortunately rather ridiculous, to compliment certain political conducts and actions as democratic and condemn others as undemocratic. Sometimes such labelling may be quite amusing, but its funny side escapes most observers. So when a politician is criticised for being undemocratic because in the parliament he disobeys the speaker and refuses to yield the floor, one cannot but laugh. This is a democratic behaviour in its purest form, invented in a democracy and having a very long tradition in a democratic history. When populism is criticised and called “undemocratic”, it is also difficult to maintain a serious demeanour because populism is a phenomenon as typical of democracy as demagoguery.
At any rate, before it disappeared, giving way to the idolatry of democracy, the concept of a hybrid system known as a mixed regime had played a creative role in political thought and practice, as it prevented the politicians from falling into utopianism. There was no one combination model, and the particular political arrangements reflected national traditions, usually dating from pre-democratic times. Given that (post-revolutionary) France was considered a republic just like England and the Netherlands (despite the last two formally being monarchies) and as was the United States to a certain degree, the republican formula allowed for a considerable diversity, political experimentation, and a great number of innovations which combined modern elements with traditional ones at various levels of public life. In several decades, not only did this approach to political systems completely disappear from the public consciousness, but was also marginalised by political science. The word “republic” is used today only in the sense of the form of government and any attempts to extend its meaning and to restore its former scope provoke the irritation of political scientists.
The politicians are equally reluctant to use the word “republic” because people tend to associate it with some form of oppressive statism. They definitely prefer the word “democracy”, which they have been taught to associate with freedom, openness and diversity. These associations are wrong, of course, because the republic has a higher internal diversity than liberal democracy, also incorporating undemocratic institutions, for example, aristocratic and monarchical, and satisfying non-democratic sensibilities. Liberal democracy is more restrictive, being strongly correlated with egalitarian principles that are quite wrongly believed to generate diversity. The opposite is true: egalitarianism does not tolerate the aristocratic and monarchical tendencies, not only in the political structures of the state (which might be understandable), but in any other area of public life. And yet liberal democracy being the single most homogenising force in the modern world creates the illusion that it alone stands for social differentiation.
A liberal-democratic man surrenders to the illusion: he believes – quite wrongly – that he has managed to make his inner self more and more intrinsically diversified and therefore while imprinting his ideas on the world around him, he cherishes a reassuring conviction that through him the world also becomes more diversified. But since in fact he himself dramatically loses his sensitivity to diversity, he is utterly unable to see how by his influence the world around him slowly submerges in an ever more stifling uniformity.
The consequences of this version of Churchill’s saying are similar to those of the socialist doctrine: the system is not subject to any criticism. In practical terms this means that one cannot move away from liberal democracy in any aspect and any area of life, just as one could not move away from socialism in any aspect and any area. And even if such a retreat were actually happening by accident or under the pressure of the circumstances, one must not admit it or call it a retreat or even speak and think of it in a way that would suggest a deviation from the liberal-democratic model. Whenever some concessions and compromises are made, they must always be presented as being improvements of the model or as bringing to the fore the most precious potential that for some reason was not yet activated.
There is a possible counter-argument to this. One can say that modern Western political countries are actually hybrid regimes despite the fact that they are called democracies. Their mixed character is well expressed by the name itself. As liberal democracies they are combinations of liberalism and democracy, which – it can be argued further – retains the original specificity of the mixed regime, although modified in accordance with modern realities. But is it indeed the case? Is liberal democracy a mixed regime?
We do not know exactly when the term liberal democracy entered into a wider usage, but it certainly happened fairly recently. In the mid-nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill wrote how freedom was threatened after the fall of traditional autocracies, particularly by the process of democratisation through which a society gained an indirect, but more profound control of the mind of an individual. He argued that a possible countervailing force to this dangerous tendency was liberalism which would open the space for individual disobedience and eccentricity. In the twentieth century Ortega y Gasset was advocating some form of aristocratic liberalism, also as a counterweight to a stage of democratisation which he called a mass society. Democracy and liberalism were seen as divergent also by others, Schumpeter, to give a well-known example. In short it was obvious for a long time that liberalism and democracy point to two opposite directions and generate incompatible attitudes. Combining them looked, therefore, like an enterprise well worth undertaking.
The establishment of democracy seems to require an urgent counteraction, the more so that democracy, as pointed out by such shrewd observers as Tocqueville and Ortega, was something more than a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power; it had also an ability to change the whole mindset of society by depriving it of all intellectual and psychological impulses, all social habits and aspirations, however creative and valuable, that did not conform to democratic practices. Those writers used a different language and faced a different political reality than the ancient philosophers, but expressed similar concerns, notably arguing that democracy tends to enslave people’s minds through methods that are not easily legible and controllable, yet no less perfidious. “I know no country in which there is less independence of mind and less genuine freedom of thought than in America”, wrote Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. And when he spoke about limitations on freedom he did not mean the legal constraints to express one’s ideas, but rather the pressure to remove from one’s mind everything that a democratic society did not give a stamp of legitimacy.
The aridity of the democratic mind could be discerned and deplored because at that time classical education was still in force, providing an outside non- democratic perspective of evaluation. People educated on Aristotle, Plutarch and Cicero could not help but notice that rampant democratisation was accompanied by the unification of thinking that was a direct offshoot of an anti-hierarchical conformity, so typical of the democratic man. It might appear, therefore, and it did seem to people like Mill and Tocqueville that liberalism will function as a vehicle of an aristocratic factor, along the lines previously indicated by the ancients. By introducing more individual freedom liberalism could reawaken strong desires for high aspirations and infuse some life in an omnipresent pressure of mediocrity. A wave of liberalism was to encourage an attitude of eccentricity which Mill hoped would stimulate the human spirit to search for the new and the extraordinary. Putting democracy and liberalism together seemed a most promising idea: democracy ensured the overall balance of the entire political order, while liberalism was responsible for enriching the society with individual inspirations to improve things, supporting a human desire for creativity and for change.
The concept of liberal democracy, understood as the mix of democracy and liberalism, is usually explained by contrasting it with the totalitarian democracy. The latter term became popular through Jacob Talmon, who coined it analysing the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The favourite quote with which Rousseau was said to seal his fate as a totalitarian comes from his The Social Contract, from the passage in which, while considering a conflict between an individual will and the general will, he wrote that the general will is entitled to coerce the individual will to obedience because such action will constitute “coercion to freedom”. The expression is unfortunate indeed, though the idea behind it is more complex than most critics of Rousseau admit. In any case – wrote Talmon and subsequently other authors – totalitarian democracy is one in which, in principle, the conflict between the state and the individual should not exist, and in the event of such a conflict, the state has the moral duty to coerce the individual to obey. People with liberal sensitivity rejected this possibility with indignation, asserting – quite rightly – that it defies the most elementary assumption that freedom and coercion are exclusive. Thus from the onset the liberals emphasised the principle – considered unchallengeable – that in liberal democracy man must not be coerced to freedom because the decision is not that of the government, the church, the nation, or any community but of the man himself. What exactly it meant and where one should draw the line between the decision of an individual and that of the collective was and still is a topic of important disputes.
Of course the republican democracy, as developed in America and later in Europe, never resembled Rousseau’s quasi-totalitarian system, at least in its structural mechanism: they were not ruled by the general will but by political parties and factions, which Rousseau would have considered the exact antithesis of his conception. When Tocqueville, Ortega and others postulated introducing a more libertarian element in democracy, they were less concerned with the political structure of democracy, but more with its social and cultural content. What they feared was the tyranny of sentiment and opinion and the general gravitation of a democratic society toward conformist mediocrity. The introduction of civil liberties, the Bill of Rights and various legal guarantees, although it could sometimes – but not always – create a barrier against the concentration of political power, was not really a response to these dangers of democracy that were so accurately identified by the representatives of what I called – for want of a better term – aristocratic liberalism.
When we look at the changes in liberal-democratic societies, especially in recent decades, at a time when the republican model lost its impact, we see that what actually happened was not so much the introduction of liberalism into democracy but the democratisation of liberalism. The effect proved to be the opposite of the expected. Divergent elements, such as the democratic and the aristocratic where one would offset the weaknesses of the other, were not incorporated into one system. Liberalism did not diversify democracy because it was a different type of liberalism than what the American Founding Fathers, Tocqueville and Ortega hoped for: not aristocratic, but egalitarian, and as such it reinforced what it should have moderated. It should not have been a surprise because the original idea of liberalism was indeed egalitarian.
The starting position of liberalism – and at the same time a final perspective – is a hypothetical situation in which relatively independent units cooperate through a system of contracts. When adapting this formula to reality, it was of course necessary to accept compromises and concessions, so by introducing additional elements for the sake of realism, the system was always losing its original simplicity. But the democratisation was something more than a compromise or a concession. It turned liberalism into a doctrine in which the primary agents were no longer individuals, but groups and institutions of the democratic state. Instead of the individuals striving for the enrichment of the social capital with new ideas and aspirations, there emerged individuals voicing their demands called rights and acted within the scope of the organised groups. Those groups were subsequently petitioning the state institutions, and exerted pressure on them to change legislation and political practices. Over time, these groups began to affect judicial decisions of the courts, demanding legal acceptance of their position and acquired privileges. In the final outcome the state in liberal democracy ceased to be an institution pursuing the common good, but became a hostage of groups which treated it solely as an instrument of change securing their interests.
The state, more and more involved in the process of supporting the group aspirations, largely lost its general republican character and turned into a conglomerate of the social, economic, cultural and other policy programmes, enacted and imposed through democratic procedures. This in turn meant that the state had to take over more and more specific responsibilities, far beyond the normal operations of the state apparatus. As the new expectations of the new groups had more and more to do with their status and social recognition, the traditional means of the state policy were no longer sufficient. It became necessary to intervene deeply into the social substance – it was there that the roots of status and recognition resided – either through a direct political action or indirectly by changing the laws and making appropriate judicial decisions, making drastic adjustments in morality and social mores to guarantee equality. The state representatives armed with the rhetoric of antidiscrimination felt it was their duty to regulate the matters that for too long remained unregulated, which often meant giving privileges to certain groups and taking them away from other groups.
Once the liberal democracy became established, those who in the past complained about the growth of the communist state and compared it with the glorious example of the asceticism of a liberal state could not invoke such contrast any longer. The liberal-democratic state – still more effective than a communist state – slowly and steadily underwent a similar expansion and likewise deeply intruded in the lives of its citizens. However, while in the case of the communist state its spread and its intrusive interference had their source in the determination of the authorities who, in order to survive, had to impose, forcefully, more and more controls of social spontaneity, in a liberal-democratic state the source of this growing intrusion are the citizens themselves, both as individuals and as members of the privilege-seeking groups.
With the democratisation of liberalism, the state unleashed a drive for hyperactivity of those groups, which in turn resulted in the hyperactivity of political and legal institutions. The government, the courts and the legislative bodies have been under a constant pressure to continue their policy of distributing further privileges and to grant further rights; the politicians soon discovered that giving way to this pressure or even pre-empting it was to their advantage since the continuation of the policy of equality was the best method to acquire electoral votes, to secure democratic legitimacy, and thus to stay in power. Thus a peculiar race began: on the one hand, the groups were inventing more and more effective means to influence the policies of the executive, the legislative and the judiciary, and on the other, the politicians, the lawmakers and the judges were more and more involved in a competition as to who will be the best provider of the new privileges and rights to those groups.
A growing number of group claims required new legislative and judicial decisions, new rules of all sorts to improve the existing law and to provide it with new and ever more up-to-date interpretations. The legislatures and the courts struggled tirelessly with the new political reality and often assumed the initiative themselves in order to strengthen and legitimise their political role. Reversing this process was impossible. The withdrawal of the state from some areas would entail reducing the activity of the government ministers, local officials, parliamentarians, provincial and regional governors and others. And such a thing could not and is not to be permitted because in democratic politics it is in nobody’s interest; the democratic mechanism itself was created not to limit political activity but to keep it going at an ever higher speed. Restless acting and reacting, amending and modifying, initiating and taking over, responding to new challenges and challenging others, all these have been perceived by the politicians, the society and the media as the proper conduct according to which the men of politics have been evaluated.
Naturally, it is sometimes difficult to see the relationship between the interests of a particular group and the activities of the state due to a habit of constant flurry of activity of the politicians and political institutions. The state which does not stay in a constant flurry of activity or which does not effectively convince its citizens that it will vigorously hustle and bustle to ensure better conditions for specific groups, quickly passes into the hands of new parties or new trustees of political power. The slogan “to change and reform” is repeated during every election, regardless of the economic and political situation. Oftentimes, the changes are superficial and unnecessary; they complicate simple things, replace the better with worse, or the lesser evil with more evil, but everyone feels the urge to act, even if the activity is phoney. Hence the well-known phenomenon of uncontrolled growth of regulations about which we all complain but whose slowing down we find intolerable.
It is also typical of our time that the growth of the state does not go along with belief – as exhibited in the past – in the miraculous power of the state. The state ceased to be associated with great hopes and is no longer viewed as a political object of worship. Rather, it appears that with its growing influence and progressive taking on new responsibilities, the state loses the respect of citizens. Demands directed at the state are nowadays expressed in a tone of exasperation and angry impatience rather than with the belief in its charitable omnipotence. It can be considered a paradox that a liberal-democratic man expects more and more from the state which he values less and less.
Today, it is the major political forces in Europe that mainly contribute to the growth of the state. The slogans to limit the state are of course proclaimed by all, but they continue to be declarations only; their implementation would constitute a suicide for politicians and would provoke the anger of citizens. Such attempts would be perceived as the loss of power gained by groups and the withdrawal of support of the state. This in turn would have to be considered as a threat to the triumphs of liberal democracy.
Let us ignore the issue to what extent the inner logic of the theories of liberalism and democracy led to the coalescing of liberal and democratic institutions that we observe today. This is a separate subject, to be discussed at another occasion. But the fact is that due to various historical circumstances we live today in a homogeneous system, which seems final and has managed to delegitimise all alternatives.
This impression of finality is due to several reasons, out of which the important ones have already been mentioned. In Europe the impression has an additional aspect which stems from the impact of the European Union, which has managed to re-create the liberal-democratic model at the supranational level, and in some measure – so to say – crowning the whole structure with it. The current EU doctrine explicitly states that it is the ultimate system, a culminating emanation of the “European values”, a final stage of the history of the European peoples, worthy of absolute protection and praise. This doctrine has a practical side to it, which is an ever growing system of controls, regulations, legislation and jurisdiction. The countries that break loose of the process or the politicians who express reservations – no matter how timidly – are immediately subject to disproportionately harsh criticism. The EU propaganda has it that the ongoing political debate in Europe for two and a half thousand years came to an end and that the Europeans have finally resolved all major political problems not only on an intellectual level or at the level of the institutions across the continent, but in a way all over the world, as the EU has become the highest arbiter of gauging all political developments in the world and has become – as the Soviet Union once did – the hope of the oppressed peoples of all continents.
The EU – not surprisingly – has become a major regulating power in Europe, and the EU politicians proudly state that they are responsible for seventy per cent of the national legislation. This legislation is mostly unnecessary in view of the majority of the citizens but necessary from the perspective of the European institutions: it confirms their power, regardless of whether they are beneficial for the people or not. The process of legislation involves vast numbers of people, organisations and committees in the process of participation and thus creates a colossal army preparing the ground for subsequent legislation and neutralising – so far very effectively – any critics. All this is submerged in a sea of propaganda and ideology. Every piece of legislative regulation is presented not as a simple organisational or administrative decision but as a step toward something great, for which we, the Europeans, should be grateful. Every directive, Council document, resolution or report of the European Parliament must be accompanied by the boastful rhetoric proclaiming it to be another irresistible proof of the coming victory of the European project. Even what seems to be an obvious failure is presented as a resounding success. The year 2011, in which the euro system collapsed was, in the words of the President of Europe (that is, the President of the Council), the annus horribilis, which, he added, in the future will be considered the annus mirabilis. The communist politicians resorted to the same device: they also categorically brushed away any suggestion that the system had an inherent weakness, and were busy convincing the citizens that a constant struggle with the permanent crisis only confirmed the system’s superiority.
(The book first appeared in Polish under the title Triumf człowieka pospolitego (ZYSK 2012), and the present English translation (by Teresa Adelson and the author) is a slightly shortened and somewhat modified version of the original.)