EMERGENCY Voltaire: Democracy

“The worst political state is the popular state.” So Cinna explains to Augustus. But just as good a maxim is “The worst political state is the monarchy.”Voltaire by Houdon

Bayle, more than once, in his dictionary upheld the pros and cons in his entry on Pericles – a hideous portrayal of democracy, particularly that of Athens.

Voltaire on Democracy

Voltaire on Democracy

A republican and lover of democracy, who is one of our questioners sends us this refutation of Bayle and his apologia for Athens. We expose his reasoning. It is the privilege of one who writes, to judge the living and the dead: but we are judged ourselves by others, who will do likewise in turn and century after century every sentence is reformed.

That’s my edition. It goes on at length about Bayle’s apologia for Athenian democracy. Another edition which is translated online reads thus:

ORDINARILY there is no comparison between the crimes of the great who are always ambitious, and the crimes of the people who always want, and can want only liberty and equality. These two sentiments, Liberty and Equality, do not lead direct to calumny, rapine, assassination, poisoning, the devastation of one’s neighbours’ lands, etc.; but ambitious might and the mania for power plunge into all these crimes whatever be the time, whatever be the place.

Popular government is in itself, therefore, less iniquitous, less abominable than despotic power.

The great vice of democracy is certainly not tyranny and cruelty: there have been mountain-dwelling republicans, savage, ferocious; but it is not the republican spirit that made them so, it is nature.

The real vice of a civilized republic is in the Turkish fable of the dragon with many heads and the dragon with many tails. The many heads hurt each other, and the many tails obey a single head which wants to devour everything.

Democracy seems suitable only to a very little country, and further it must be happily situated. Small though it be, it will make many mistakes, because it will be composed of men. Discord will reign there as in a monastery; but there will be no St. Bartholomew, no Irish massacres, no Sicilian vespers, no inquisition, no condemnation to the galleys for having taken some water from the sea without paying for it, unless one supposes this republic composed of devils in a corner of hell.

One questions every day whether a republican government is preferable to a king’s government? The dispute ends always by agreeing that to govern men is very difficult. The Jews had God Himself for master; see what has happened to them on that account: nearly always have they been beaten and slaves, and to-day do you not find that they cut a pretty figure?

A more recent critique of democracy is from PZ Myers, who writes:

The system is broken. It’s tainted and corrupt. Democracy itself is deeply flawed; it’s only as good as the electorate, and the electorate is a swine pit full of yahoos and holy rollers and used car salesmen.

That’s similar to part of Plato’s argument against democracy: the people are stupid, they’re a mob. The poor become the winners and the poor aren’t qualified to lead themselves. Plato was in favor of aristocracy – an aristocracy of philosophers, natch.*

Here’s the problem I’ve got with all this theorizing: even Athens wasn’t a democracy. It was ruled by about 12% of the population. Admittedly, that’s about 11% more than the US’ ruling class, but…

And how can anyone mistake the US for a democracy? I’m not sure what you’d call it, but I’d say it’s maybe a “representative oligarchy” – the popular vote is largely negated (making it: not a democracy) and is substituted with a rentier class of professional politicians that allegedly represent the popular will. Of course those politicians do nothing of the sort. A famous study by Gilens and Page at Princeton maps popular attitudes (expressed by polls) with the actions of Congress, and discovers that: Congress does pretty much nothing that the people want. Add to that the two-party system, which exists to do nothing but control the popular vote, gerrymandering which exists to do nothing but moot the popular vote, disenfranchisement of criminals which exists to do nothing but take the vote from part of the population, voter registration which exists to do nothing but make it inconvenient for the wrong kind of people to vote, etc.

The US bears more resemblance to Geneva in the 16th century: there evolved layers of fake democratic “councils” each of which appeared to be the legislative body in which popular representation happened – but they were as significant as the typical high school class president: the real decisions were made by the “Little Council”  Nowadays we’d have the Koch Brothers, the Democratic party “superdelegates” etc – the whole vast machinery that exists to do nothing but obscure the fact that We, The People, have fuck all to do with how the country behaves – other than that most of us** pay taxes to keep the machinery of our own suppression running semi-smoothly.

The problem with PZ’s comment is that it amounts to victim-blaming: our democracy is fake, therefore the electorate are swine.

Let the blame lie where it should: our democracy is fake and always has been fake; it was a power-sharing arrangement between mutually distrusting oligarchs*** that allowed them to happily oligarch their lives away without interference from the monarch over in England.

Let the blame lie where it should: the world is full of these fake democracies – Turkey, China, Russia, the United States, where power is closely held by an elite “for the good of the people”  Don’t blame the people. The people are not swine, PZ. The people are horrified by what the Washington Establishment has been doing and some of them have snapped and are pushing for a

born aristocrat

born aristocrat

proto-fascist Trump and others snapped and were pushing for a pseudo-socialist Sanders. The entire election cycle has been an endless discussion of nothing but how the popular vote is being manipulated with money, mooted by party mechanics, and meanwhile the people aren’t swine – they’re frustrated and helpless.

Let me close with a suggestion: Don’t – just don’t – anyone quote Winston Churchill’s bullshit “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” A born aristocrat, Churchill took advantage of the fact that he came out of a uterus belonging to the descendants of dukes of Marlborough and Spencer to launch his career into politics. Clearly, he was quite a believer in his own words.****

(* Imagine an aristocracy of bloggers. No, don’t.)

(** With the exception of Donald Trump and massive corporations)

(*** That, by the way, is exactly what Plato means when he talks about democracy being a degenerate form of oligarchy!)

(**** He also claimed there was nothing so invigorating as to be shot at and missed, but spent the London blitz in an underground bunker while an actor walked about pretending to be him. If you are getting the idea I am no fan of Churchill, you are perceptive.)


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Neither Thucydides nor Voltaire had to deal with Murdoch media and road-rage rant radio – themselves arguably products of the debauched demos, of the masses/markets, and a 24/365 disproof of Bayle’s optimistic view of “… the people who always want, and can want only liberty and equality.”

    Not having time to dig up apposite quotations, please allow me to wave generally in the direction of another scion of aristocracy who pointed out the necessity of competent journalism and strong public education to maintain even the sort of rigged racist republic he helped to set up: one Thomas Jefferson.

    As the USA’s news and schools decline, we hear ever more loudly the electorate’s oinking.

  2. says

    Pierce R. Butler@#1:
    As the USA’s news and schools decline, we hear ever more loudly the electorate’s oinking.

    Well, that brings up the question “Who made the schools and news so bad?”
    I don’t think it’d be hard to argue that the oligarchy wants a dumb electorate – and has succeeded in producing one. I still don’t want to blame the electorate for that.

    While Rush Limbaugh and his callers are at least partly demos as were many of Aristophanes’ audience, their agenda is set in the service of the elite. Do we blame the bootlicker or the boot? I don’t know. :(

    Actually, the whole concept of “blaming people” sort of falls apart for me, when we’re talking about a complex issue that has a lot of causes and effects. Blame seems to only make sense when we decide we’re going to assess culpability on some limited topic, which almost always seems to involve throwing away exculpatory information somewhere or other.

  3. Siobhan says

    Here’s the problem I’ve got with all this theorizing: even Athens wasn’t a democracy. It was ruled by about 12% of the population. Admittedly, that’s about 11% more than the US’ ruling class, but…

    Gonna need some cream for that burn.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Do we blame the bootlicker or the boot?

    Best eight-word apothegm I’ve encountered in a long time.

    … a complex issue that has a lot of causes and effects.

    It’s not like we ever had a optimal state from which we could measure the present degradation.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    My favourite footwear-related apophthegm:

    Got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight

    Bruce Cockburn, Canadian songwriter