Back in college, I remember my Sociology professor, a tough and politically incorrect old man, talk about the "EDSA Revolution." EDSA is a place in Manila where the "People Power Revolution" occurred in 1986, against the regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. For many Filipinos, "People Power" or "EDSA" was one of the crowning moments of Filipino History. There were stories back then of how priests and nuns protected opposition politicians from snipers, and how old women on wheelchairs asked to be pushed to the front of the barricades.
For many Filipinos, the EDSA or People Power Revolution was a very emotional moment, and those emotions were based around the notion of restoring Democracy. But the people who participated in People Power didn’t want just any kind of Democracy. They were protesting for a particular type of Democracy, one which is distinctly Filipino in nature and experience.
Alejandro Roces, a national artist as well as a former Secretary of Education, describes this collective experience in the following manner: "Democracy is in our blood and on its behalf Filipino blood has been spilled for its creation and in its defense. It is a legacy to be protected, preserved, honored and should never be subverted."
Ironically, former President Marcos, the man who was deposed by People Power, wrote something similar with regards to Democracy in his 1971 book, Today's Revolution: Democracy: "It is for the People that we embark on the Democratic Revolution in order to alter or transform society."
Marcos' successor, President Corazon Aquino, shared her own ideas about Democracy when she said: "It is true you cannot eat freedom and you cannot power machinery with democracy. But then neither can political prisoners turn on the light in the cells of a dictatorship."
Yes, Democracy is certainly well established in Filipino political culture, which is why I consider De Benoist's 1985 book, The Problem of Democracy as a very significant piece of political commentary, not only for the people of the Western World, but also for all peoples who wish to re-examine the value and importance of modern Liberal Democracy.
Here, in the Philippines, the notion of Democracy is Nationalistic. It is a political system which is contrasted with the colonial governments of both Imperial Spain and America. Democracy is considered as the hard-earned reward for the People Power Revolution and the anti-colonial uprisings that preceded it. For many Filipinos, the notion of Democracy is inexorably tied with anti-colonialism and the notion of freedom. So for someone to question the Democratic system is almost analogous to questioning Filipino sovereignty and independence.
The same thing may also be said in other parts of the world where Democratic institutions have taken on a semi-mythological importance. In a world where both North Korea and the United States describe themselves as Democracies, it's important to reexamine what this political system really means in our present context, especially now that our global system is undergoing tremendous changes.
Democracy, Then and Today
De Benoist begins his book by contrasting the Democracy practiced by the Ancient Athenians and Early European cultures with the type of Democracy that most countries practice today. The ancient Athenians practiced a type of Democracy that was based on a different set of ideas with regards to suffrage, citizenship and equality. De Benoist highlights how these ideas are diametrically opposed to those normally attributed to the modern democratic process.
Where modern Democracy assumes natural equality, Greek/Athenian Democracy only practiced political equality as a means of expediency. Where Greek Democracy defined citizenship based on ancestry and breeding, modern Democracy bases citizenship on liberal and individualistic concepts of man, which is to say a type of citizenship that is outside of biological and historical contexts. And where Greek Democracy was aimed at elite turnover, modern Democracy – at least in theory – defines itself as the rule-by-people-just-like-you-and-me (but better trained and more qualified (but still equal since we’re all equal and anyone who says otherwise is a Fascist Nazi)).
The difference between Greek Democracy and modern Democracy is, therefore, more than just the methodology (i.e. direct and indirect decision-making). The real differences lie, as De Benoist points out, in the cultural, moral and even metaphysical assumptions of the Greeks and those of modern culture. As such, any form of Democracy must be contextualized within the civilization or culture to which it is applied, including the ones which exist in the world today. To put it another way, there is no such thing as "Democracy," but only different kinds of Democracies, each one having its own unique set of characteristics.
Based on this outlook, one can almost say that the Democracy of an Islamic theocracy or of North Korea is no less valid than the Democracy of the United States or of Western Europe, even if the former examples do not uphold liberal values. Such an outlook ultimately leads to the de-legitimization of Liberal Democracy as the only true expression of Democracy, and thus, opens up to the possibility of new forms of Democracy, each one no less valid or legitimate than the other.
Moreover, De Benoist has done an impressive job in presenting the epistemology behind Greek Democracy and how it has evolved over time. Of particular importance is the concept of the Idiotes, the man who does not belong to any city-state, and therefore, by definition is a pariah. This particular aspect of Athenian Democracy seems to be opposed to the modern notion of "Individualism," something that would probably have been regarded by the Athenians as completely absurd (since they believed that any form of rights had to exist within a communal or collective context).
In contrast to modern Individualism, the Greek idea of suffrage is intertwined with group identity, and any political rights or participation extends from being part of said group, as opposed to any notion of inalienable or abstract rights. Moreover, the goal of Greek Democracy was not the creation of a nanny state in that it was not designed to ensure "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" of each individual. Its goal was the expansion of the power of the group, and by extension the power of each member/ citizen of the group. For the Athenians, Athenian Democracy was first and foremost Athenian in nature. Its Democratic side was secondary.
Liberal Democracy, on the other hand, is a system which can function (and indeed thrive) among rootless individuals. What this basically means is that Liberal Democracy (or at least, Western-style Democracy) is more like an idealized methodology for ensuring certain abstract rights, as opposed to a system which promotes the interests of the society which created it. As such, it is not surprising that Western identity – thanks to Western political theory – has now been reduced to the level of a "social construct."
The book also points out that Liberal Democracy with its basis on the rootless individual is designed to be more inclusive, whereas Athenian Democracy is definitely designed to be exclusive to Athenians. Such differences are important, as they highlight how Liberal Democracy, far from being part of the political tradition of the Greeks, is actually a product of modernity. It is in this sense therefore, that we can conclude that Athenian Democracy was ethnocentric, whereas modern Democracy is Universalist.
However, a modern liberal may argue against these observations by saying that Athenian Democracy was simply a prototype, an imperfect invention that is now in the process of being perfected (thanks to the existence of politically correct, multi-cultural and mass consumer societies.) Moreover, I could play devil’s advocate by saying that the Athenians, despite their good ideas, do not realize that being Athenian is just a "social construct."
So despite De Benoist's impressive historical analysis, I also see a need to point out that convincing people that the Greeks were right about Democracy (and that modern Liberal Democracy is false) is not a matter of just presenting facts and ideas. It first requires an inversion of Liberal morality and the culture of egalitarianism. In other words, the main issue in the modern concept of Democracy is not actually Democracy itself but the ideas and assumptions on which it is based.
Just as Athenian Democracy was based on Athenian Identity, Liberal Democracy is based on Liberalism. And just as Athenian Democracy ended with the Athenians, Liberal Democracy can only end with the death of Liberalism. De Benoist's examination of the origins of Democracy relativizes the ideal of Democracy, and gives it numerous different faces. Democracy, thus becomes, a political instrument that is open to new possibilities and epistemologies, and not just those which aim for modern and Liberal goals. So what's really at stake here is convincing people that Democracy should not be considered as an ideal, but rather as a means to an end.
The Contradictions of Democracy
In deconstructing the modern myths of Democracy, De Benoist mentions that "it is not the idea of absolute power which Democracy rejects, but rather the idea that such power may be the privilege of a single person." Indeed, the idea that all power comes from "The People" provides Democracy with certain Totalitarian characteristics, for if all power derives from "The People" then to oppose those who represent the "Will of the People" is to become, not just political opponents, but moral and epistemological opponents as well.
The massacres carried out by the likes of Mao, Marat ("Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed your freedom and happiness...") and Pol Pot were, after all, carried out in the name of "The People." So the idea that Democracy is a benevolent form of government by virtue of it being rooted in the will of the people is nothing more than wishful thinking.
Indeed, there is a side to Democracy that is self-destructive. If the people wish to elect to dissolve Democracy, then Democracy – by its very principles – must be dissolved (which, as De Benoist points out, did happen once in Athens). Likewise, in the case of Liberal Democracy, the masses of people can easily vote for illiberal or anti-democratic measures. De Benoist has done an excellent job in highlighting these contradictions and how modern Liberal Democracy in the Western World must control the feelings and identity of the electorate in order to maintain itself:
"Now, not only are modern liberal democracies loathe to consider the people as an organic and relatively unitary notion, but the political practices they implement contribute to dismantle and divide it first into factions and parties, and then into individuals who are essentially alien to each other."
The use of coercion, both in the form of hard and soft power, inevitably creates an atmosphere where people become less confident about the Democratic process as a vehicle for political participation. Thus, Democracy's fate is to become no longer an ideal form of government in the minds of the citizens, but rather "the lesser evil" (other evils being dictatorship and various forms of perceived totalitarianism). This false dichotomy between Tyranny on the one hand and Democracy on the other is one of the biggest political obstacles that must be overcome in the 21st century.
Moreover, in order for Liberal Democracy to preserve itself, it must become more than what many Liberals and Democrats like it to be, that is a political system sustained purely by the will of a rational, tolerant, and enlightened electorate. In order to prevent the masses from voting for measures which can jeopardize its democratic character or existence, the Democratic system is forced to depart from simple reliance on the electorate and resort to things like social engineering and media manipulation of that same electorate in order to maintain its existence.
Thus Democracy in order to survive ceases to be "democratic," and although De Benoist doesn't explicitly state this, his observations indicate that Democracy, in the modern world, has gone from the rule of the many to the rule of conformity. In this sense, the masses of people in the modern liberal democracy are only given options and candidates which serve the agendas of the entrenched elites who rule the country, which in turn, leads to things like, "manufactured consent," self-censorship and Political Correctness with regards to sensitive political issues.
Of course, such a state of affairs inevitably lead to contradictions, which are then translated into political apathy as well as widespread alienation from political participation, topics which De Benoist also touches on in his book. One would argue therefore that such problems can only be resolved when the electorate or the citizens confront such contradictions and move past them. However, I am rather pessimistic about this, mainly because I believe that politics thrives on contradiction.
Despite De Benoist's observations about the contradictions of Modern Liberal Democracy, let us not forget that any Democratic system can easily vote its contradictions into oblivion, and if a people wish to vote that "2 + 2 = 5" then 2 and 2 is 5. Politics, after all, is not about logic or fairness, but the willingness to make important decisions, and to put those decisions into practice. And it doesn't matter if modern democracy has its contradictions. A lot of things in politics contradict themselves and they remain strong nevertheless. What really matters are not the contradictions themselves, but the political will of the people to move past them. Despite my misgivings however, I do believe that De Benoist's observations can have a very important impact on future political movements.
The General Will
Another important topic covered in The Problem of Democracy is the distinction between the rule of the majority and the general will. With regards to the general will, it's important to remember that this concept is not unique to the French people. Here, in the Philippines, we have something similar in the concept of Bayanihan. In Russia, there is the concept of Sobornost. And of course, there is the much debated African concept of Ubuntu. So the concept of the General Will does exist in many cultures and ethnicities, albeit in slightly different forms.
The question however, is how do we take something so nebulous as the General Will and apply it in real world politics. In the modern world the obvious answer is Democracy, and for many people, that's the end of it. De Benoist demolishes this myth, and presents ideas which separate Democracy from the idea of the General Will.
The author explains that both the parliamentary style Democracy of the EU as well as the Democratic system of the U.S. hardly represent the General Will of their own respective peoples, and that now, thanks to social atomization, partisan politics, and the tendency towards centrist positions, the General Will has been eroded to such an extent that political apathy has become a very common problem among voters.
To illustrate his case, De Benoist presents different views of Democracy, from Rousseau to modern thinkers who regard Democracy as a methodology or a form of legality. He quotes, for example, Bill Kristol’s view that Democracy is essentially a system of laws and procedures that creates a balance between the majority and the minority, regardless of how these two groups are constituted. Such a view however, precludes any notion of the General Will or Popular Sovereignty, and reduces Democracy to the level of utilitarianism and methodology.
From that point, De Benoist moves on to talk about the modern fetishization of pluralism, which is seen as an attempt to prevent the tyranny of the majority, and indeed produces popular arguments against the view that Democracy is essentially half the voting population + 1. According to this line of reasoning, in order to ensure a truly democratic regime (from a liberal perspective), a society must be inherently pluralistic, since that is the only way to resolve the problem of the "Tyranny of the Majority." This is probably one of the reasons why modern Western Society is so obsessed with the idea of multiculturalism, because it is perceived as one of the few conditions that leads to a truly democratic system. It seeks to remove power from any perceived collective identity (i.e. racial, religious or ethnic majority) and bestow it upon a plurality of political factions, hoping that such a setup can prevent totalitarianism or – heaven forbid – Fascism!
De Benoist however, rightly points out that pluralism and Liberal Democracy undermine collective identity and popular sovereignty, thus creating a paradox wherein the General Will, which is the theoretical basis of Democracy, is done away with in favor of factional interests. So, once again, we are back to the contradictions of Democracy. Liberal Democracy, with its goals of radical individualism and its opposition to any perceived form of totalitarianism (and collectivism), inevitably destroys the traditional foundations of what Democracy had been to the Athenians.
The last chapter of the book, Towards Organic Democracy is something of an anti-climax. Consistent with his criticisms towards modern liberal democracy, De Benoist proposes certain measures that will create a Democratic system that is more responsive to the General Will of its people.
De Benoist's solution for Democracy involves plebiscites, localism, referendums and "qualitative procedures for measuring consensus." Although such suggestions have their merits, I find them wanting in terms of real world practicality. It must be pointed out, for example, that Democracy does not exist within a vacuum. It interacts with economic and social forces which may not be too amenable to the kind of reforms De Benoist proposes.
For starters, localism and direct democracy are vulnerable to strong man rule. Here, in the Philippines, there's a saying that elections are ruled by guns, gold and goons, and local government elections are as vulnerable to them national elections. As for referendums and plebiscites, such measures certainly are worthy of consideration. However, they are only effective in a country with a relatively sophisticated political culture, and a population that regularly engages in political debate. In a country that is susceptible to charismatic leaders and political indifference, such measures are of dubious value.
The reforms that De Benoist proposes may be effective in Western countries. It may even be effective in the Philippines. However, I do believe that not all nations are meant to be Democratic. Even the most sophisticated and effective forms of Democratic government will fall apart if it is incompatible with the historical and political culture of the country that attempts them.
With regards to the issue of solutions however, I think that the best solution that De Benoist offers is his own body of work. The act of deconstructing modern Democracy in an unbiased way is itself the best way to salvage Democracy as a system of government. For the supporters of Democracy, it is a system which ensures rights and liberties. For its detractors, it is simply mob rule. De Benoist's The Problem of Democracy attacks both points of views, and opens up the possibility of practical political solutions to the issue of Democracy.
For those of us who belong to the Alternative/New Right, it is important to view Democracy in a provisional manner, as a means to an end, but by no means as necessary or even morally essential. The Democratic system – as with all political and social systems – is less important than the people and its destiny. And it is important to remember that the General Will can be served in various ways, and not just those which involve voting by the most number of people.
The Problem of Democracy offers many interesting critiques on modern Liberal Democracy as well as its attendant myths and assumptions. However, despite De Benoist's lengthy and thorough observations, I feel that he has unfortunately left out the human factor in his book. Although he mentions the passions/apathy of certain voting groups, as well as the possible incompatibility of Western style Democracy with Non-Western cultures, I believe that his analysis does not go far enough.
Some questions that I would have liked raised include: Is Modern Democracy really designed to give everyone a voice in politics, or is it just a control mechanism to keep everyone distracted? Is Democracy a practical political system for those in the Third World? And what about the future of Democracy? Will it still be a viable system in the latter parts of the 21st century or will it have a secondary role? De Benoist could also have discussed how Democracy is subverted by "guns, goons and gold," and how Democracy might evolve in a decaying political system. Such questions could have been asked even during the eighties.
So as I've mentioned before, I think the book didn't cover enough topics, and should have included a few extra chapters exploring the meaning of Democracy under different contexts. Despite my criticisms though, the book remains a very insightful work, especially when you consider that it was written in the mid 1980s and many of De Benoist's predictions would later become glaringly obvious in the 21st century.
I suppose that my biggest problem with the book is that it's simply too academic. The style is not 'Machiavellian' enough, and also, because I like my writers to be tendentious even if I don't share their views, it was too dry for me. Still, I would have liked the book better if it offered a little more in the way of geopolitics.
At a time when the power of the Western World is waning, and Liberalism is forced to be illiberal in order to stay "Liberal," it is crucial to reexamine whether or not Liberal Democracy will remain a viable system in the not-so-foreseeable future. If the world economy were to collapse tomorrow, how many countries would remain Democratic? Would it in fact be possible for any countries to remain Democratic? Will nations take up new systems of government (but still keep up the pretense that they have Democracy)?
I'd like some answers to these questions, but the very act of asking them can be quite revolutionary in themselves. For most people, to live in a post-democratic government can seem unthinkable, but that is exactly what people need to think about nowadays. Democracy is a word that needs to be de-mystified of its moral baggage, so that attempts to provide an alternative to the present liberal democratic cosmopolitan dogmatism will not be met with a brick wall of people screaming that the absence of Democracy automatically leads to tyranny.
Having said all that, The Problem of Democracy should be required reading for anyone who seeks an alternative to the existing political dispensation all over the world. In a rapidly changing world, defining Democracy will never be quite so easy.