"Holy democracy! Blessed you are among all forms of government, and blessed be the fruit of your womb: the dictatorship of capital." Prayers like this are likely to be taught to infants in future generations if we continue current trends. Do not think that we are so far from those eccentricities; in fact, the aforementioned entity is already mentioned as if it were inscribed on a sacred altar. Just as the Church distorted history, turning it into a wait for the arrival of Christ the Savior, our political leaders emphasize that democracy has warrantied so many fights for so many centuries, confusing it with the "End of History." Just as the Holy Mother Church extended its tentacles throughout the world, carrying the word of the "Lord" and crushing other religions of colonized barbarians, the sacred ministry of democratic nations has done everything possible to spread its word and methods to the most remote corners of the world, fighting and crushing all opposition along the way. According to the Holy Office, all evil in any country comes from not being democratic enough. Apparently, some people do not believe in the perfection of the supreme form of government —Oh ye of little faith!— and they are responsible for the malfunction of societies. The only solution is more democracy, because it is the accumulation of all perfections that bring happiness to man and from which peace, fraternity, and all things wonderful are derived. Holy, holy democracy!
The triad the capital (banks and multinationals), politicians of democracy, and the media are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are one and the same force with different forms of expression. Money (the Father) is the creator of all movement in democratic societies. The politician (the Son) is the prophet moved by it and is placed in a clear position of power over the masses. The media (the Holy Spirit) represents manipulation in service of the God-Money. It is an untouchable power that spreads the message of the politician who pays for his services. Behold, brothers, the great mystery of the Holy Trinity: holy, holy democracy!
However, there have been thinkers throughout history who have not shown an ounce of faith in this religion, unlike most of our contemporaries. Let us look at some of the most prominent names.
The history of Greece is often associated with Athenian democracy and the great philosophers, as if they comprised a single entity. This, however, is an inaccurate view. All those great philosophers of antiquity criticized democracy. About 2,400 years ago, Plato expressed the excessive dangers of democracy. He claimed that the evils of this form of government lie in the possibility that disciples will want to be equal to their masters. He feared that decisions would then be made by the ignorant ones instead of the few individuals who know how to manage situations. He also pointed out that in a democracy those who wield eloquent rhetoric without being virtuous could gain power. Thus, Plato condemned democracy and advocated instead for a government of the wise.
Aristotle also argued that democracy was among the worst forms of government. For Aristotle, "democracy is found mainly in houses where there is no master (since they are all the same), and in those in which the one in charge is weak and each one can do whatever he/she likes" (Nicomachean Ethics). After the glorious era of Pericles many of the evils of democracy could be seen in the Athens of Plato or Aristotle. The oligarchic political organization of Sparta paradoxically served as the best example of good government among many Athenian thinkers. As an aside, a sentence attributed to Lycurgus, a legislator of ancient Sparta, is spot on. When a citizen asked him why democracy had not been implemented as a form of government in the city of Sparta, he replied: "Establish first democracy in your house, if you can."
In the democracies of the ancient world suffrage was not universal. Rather, it was given to few free citizens, each representing an important family. Even so, the political world in ancient Greece or Rome in its republican era also illustrates some defects that are similar to those seen in democracy today. Rhetoric, for example, was an important element and remains so today. Today rhetoric contains lies about one’s adversaries, brilliant idiomatic expressions, loud cadences, praise from the present audience, and even more theatrical manifestations (fake tears, torn clothes, etc.). Races to the magistrates were supported by electoral propaganda funded by large amounts of money. In ancient democracy, political ideas were nothing without money and everything with money.
The feudal model was imposed in the Middle Ages, and the most important European nations were monarchical by the Renaissance. Other cases (e.g., in the city-states of Venice or Florence and some cities in Switzerland, Flanders, and other regions) might have served as a reference for democrats; however, in practice, such systems were close to oligarchy.
Until the 17th century democracy did not have a good reputation. Hobbes —a leading English philosopher of this time— said that "a democracy, in effect, is nothing more than an aristocracy of orators, interrupted sometimes with the temporary monarchy of one orator." Thus, the idea persists that democracies are not the government of those of worth. Instead it is the government of charlatans who pretend to sell themselves and those who are of worth. Ironically it was in England where some of the values that characterize today’s democracies would first take hold.
By the 18th century in England freedom of the press —one of the values regarded as a virtue of democracies— had already been discovered, though, as some leaders realized at the time, the press serves those who control it. Freedom of the press came associated to battles behind the scenes to buy and gain control of that "free" press. The press does not propagate, it creates free opinion. What the press does not consider does not exist, many thinkers and observant individuals realized this centuries ago.
The century of enlightenment threatened monarchical power, especially in France. It brought about the growing power of the bourgeoisie: the French Revolution, the independence of the United States of America, and other events that strengthened democratic ideas. Well-meaning optimists —confident in the spirit of enlightenment— dreamed of a cultured and responsible humanity capable of making the best decisions for a nation, or they thought they were capable of electing the most suitable individuals to run the government.
Although the time of pro-democratic thinkers had not yet arrived, even Rousseau —an optimist of human nature— wrote that "if there were a people of gods, they would be governed democratically. But such a perfect government is not proper for men." This quote is from his work The Social Contract, which, paradoxically, is frequently referenced by those who speak of the government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Certainly Rousseau spoke of a government directed by the general will of the people instead of the king, but this general will of his social contract must not be confused with the will of the majority. The first one represents the common interest of all citizens for the social good, not the sum of the majority’s interests.
Likewise, the anti-absolutism of the enlightened French spirit of the late 18th century should not be confused with democracy and universal suffrage. Lichtenberg —a German thinker of that epoch, who was known for his aphorisms— regretted that "the welfare of many countries is decided by a majority of votes, even though everyone recognizes that there are more bad people than good people." This vision floats in the air among the less bucolic optimists.
In the burgeoning nation of the United States of America democracy has been well-received since the nation’s independence. This political system seems tailor-made for pragmatic fortune-seeking emigrants. With the division between Republicans and Democrats established in the 1830s it has been recognized that elections are a business in every sense of the word and that all state officials and government jobs are the spoils of the winner. The parties, devoid of convictions, were purely office-hunting organizations aiming to win the most votes.
Democratic values were also forming in Europe: giving the majority the power to make decisions. However, the Europe of the late 19th and early 20th century still had many thinkers who were reluctant to accept democracy. For Nietzsche "democracy means non-belief in superior men, in chosen classes: we are all equal. Deep down, we are all a selfish and plebeian herd." Masses had a bad reputation. In Psychology of the Masses, Freud warns of the danger of any state that reflects the psychological misery of the masses (a psychological mass is a group of individuals who have had the same person introduced into their superego). Then, because of the formation of this community, all the individuals in the group identify with each other.
In Brave New World Revisited British writer Aldous Huxley stated that "a crowd is chaotic, has no purposes of its own, and is capable of anything except intelligent action and realistic thinking. Assembled in a crowd, people lose their powers of reasoning and their capacity for moral choice." As German sociologist Max Weber said of the profession of the politician in democracy: "it is legitimate to qualify the present situation as a dictatorship based on the use of the emotionality of the masses." Volition, a novel by Spanish author José Martínez Ruiz (1902) (alias "Azorín"), includes thoughts widely extended in the 19th and 20th centuries:
The number can never be a reason; it could be if the mass were educated, but to educate it, somebody has to be the educator, and that educator has to be elevated over the others to impose a teaching that perhaps the same mass would refuse… Nowadays, all of us who have no interests or political aspirations, we are convinced that democracy and suffrage are absurd and that many inept individuals cannot think better than a few intelligent individuals. We see that the mass always agitated by bad passions; we see the cries of the crowd drowning out the voice of great and heroic men.
Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1929) also warned of the danger that would ensue if the masses were to gain power:
One fact is, either for better or for worse, the most important in the present European public life. This fact is the ascent of the masses to full social power. As the masses, by definition, should not and cannot direct their own existence, and even less govern society, it means that Europe is now suffering the gravest crisis that peoples, nations, or cultures can suffer… How can we not fear that under the rule of the masses the State will crush the independence of the individual and the group, and thus, will definitely wither the future?
Ortega y Gasset also had little sympathy for democratic party politics, as expressed when he said that "being leftist is, like being rightist, one of the infinite ways that a man can choose to be an idiot." He was strongly influenced by Oswald Spengler, one of the most relevant figures of anti-democratic thinking in the first half of the 20th century in Germany. Of particular influence was Spengler’s The Decline of the West, published at the end of the First World War—Ortega y Gasset wrote the prologue in the Spanish version of this work. According to Spengler, the hypothetical freedom of citizens to choose a government is useless because the ability to choose is manipulated by dominant economic powers through their control of the media:
Universal suffrage does not contain any real right, not even the right to choose between parties, because the powers nourished by the suffrage use money to dominate all the spiritual means of the word and the press, and in this way they divert opinions about the parties. On the other hand, disposing of the positions, influence, and laws, educating a group of unconditional supporters, precisely the Caucus, eliminates the rest and reduces them to electoral fatigue that, even in major crises, can no longer be overcome.
What is the truth? For the masses, it is whatever one reads and listens to every day. A fool might seclude himself and rummage around for reasons to establish "the truth," but it will simply remain his/her truth. The other one, the public truth of the moment, the only one that matters in the effective world of actions and successes, is now a product of the press. It is whatever the press wants to tell us. Their bosses produce, transform, and exchange truths. Three months of journalistic work and everyone has recognized the truth. Its foundations are irrefutable as long as there is enough money to repeat them endlessly. When the people —the mass of readers— are unleashed, they rush through the streets, they attack the pointed target, threaten, roar, break. A gesture of the major State of press is then enough to appease and calm it down.
How similar this is to what we see in our times! Freedom of opinion? As Spengler says: "Freedom of public opinion requires the elaboration of that opinion, and this costs money." The freedom of the press will be in the hands of whoever pays for it. Therefore, they can attract voters in the so-called "universal suffrage" in favor of one force or another.
Some authors accused Spengler of promoting the National Socialism that gained power in Germany in 1933 under the rule of Hitler. The truth is that Spengler, until his death in 1936, was never a member of the party nor had he a good relationship with its authorities. Gregor Strasser and Ernst Hanfstängl tried to recruit him without success. He did vote for Hitler and against Hindenburg in 1932 —as many Germans did— but once Hitler came to power in 1933, Spengler was against his policies. He met Hitler only once —in July 1933— and from that interview on nothing resembling mutual sympathy came about, no form of collaboration at all. National Socialism authorities also banned some of Spengler’s works in which he criticized Hitler’s party.
Today many people still think that anything other than democracy is either fascism or communism as if all political forms of history can be reduced to what has happened in the 20th century. A lack of historical vision! Furthermore, we must remember that democracy itself generated some of the most notable aberrations of the 20th century: Hitler was elected democratically in a country experiencing a very high unemployment rate. Such consequences of populism could arise in any country; indeed, they might happen today in countries like Venezuela if we continue to blindly trust in democracy.
Recent history shows that even the US —the nation that claims to have the healthiest democracy in the world— can fall into immoral hands. In Cultural Anthropology, contemporary author Marvin Harris states that the financing and direction of the electoral campaigns in the US are controlled by special interest groups and political action committees. According to Harris, small coalitions of powerful individuals influence elections and national affairs by manipulating agents, law firms, legislature, courts, executive and administrative agencies, and mass media. Decision-making processes largely consist of the responses of/or the pressure exerted by stakeholders. In congressional campaigns candidates who spend more money tend to be elected. B. F. Skinner, known as the American father of behavioral psychology, would say that people cannot evaluate the experts and that the act of voting holds them responsible for whatever happens. According to Skinner in Walden 2, the people are not sovereign, but they are propitiatory victims.
The development of democracies in the 20th century is well-understood. At the end of World War I the US ranked among the most dominant powers on the planet, while the few remaining continental European monarchical empires decayed. By the end of World War II the US was already the undisputed leader of Western countries. Not only had German Nazism been defeated, but the Anglo-Saxon model of politics now triumphed over all other forms of government practiced in continental Europe. With the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the US established itself as the master of the world, since then its democratic political values have spread by the globalized advertising systems of the first power, by military force (such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya) or by international pressures (such as those exerted on Cuba, North Korea and other nations).
The so-called "Arab Springs" of the last decade showed how rebel group support of democracy —US and other democratic nations send weapons and money to these rebel groups— can lead to violent acts against an authoritarian non-democratic government. When this government fights back against violent insurgent groups it is seen as a criminal government that assassinates its people. This perception, in turn, justifies putting even more pressure on such governments. In some cases, other nations invade the country to liberate the oppressed people from their executioner and subsequently impose democracy and do business with the new leaders.
Today the holy religion of democracy spreads like Christianity in pagan times. However, as history continues to unfold, some powers rise while others fall; some political ideas emerge while others fade away. It appears that the 21st century will bring surprises, as powers like China, Iran, and the new Russia emerge and the economic and (consequently) the military powers of the US decline. Also, humanity is now facing many new significant problems, for example, uncontrollable economic crises, the depletion of raw materials and energy sources, environmental destruction, pandemics. As a result, the universal suffrage system might be hindered due to its inefficiency in addressing such problems.
Those who believe that everything has already been said about all forms of politics might be wrong. Those who believe that democracy is the goal pursued by all peoples throughout the history of humanity might be wrong. They need to let history speak for itself and convince themselves that this is not so. Only the manipulative demagoguery of our current mass education and communication systems maintains democracy as the best possible government. However, there are no absolute truths in politics and no sacred principles. As Spengler said, problems are solved by making the organization work more effectively. Any real truths in history have been characterized by effectiveness; any good political form is not good because of its principles but because it is effective. Democracy —like any other form of government— could be good or bad for any given nation, depending on the time, place and circumstances in which it is applied.
(Translated by the author from the Spanish version “La tradición del pensamiento antidemocrático”, 2019, November 13th)