In his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell had this to say about democracy…
“In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy…”
This is the ‘problem’ of democracy that Alain de Benoist attempts to unravel in his work ‘The Problem of Democracy.’ What exactly is this elusive form of government that everyone claims to endorse and in so many differing ways? In many respects no man is better qualified to answer this question. de Benoist is the seminal thinker of the so-called European New Right (a name conjured up by the media), an intellectual movement that originated in the late sixties. A prolific writer of articles, books and journals, his interests have stretched from ethno-cultural identity and environmentalism, to Indo-European religion and a critique of capitalism. His intellectual rigour, respect for a free-exchange of ideas and disinterest in censorship has won him admiration from those on both the traditional Left and Right of politics.
de Benoist begins by suggesting that there are two fundamental ways of defining ‘democracy.’ The first uses an etymological approach. As many people are aware, the term stems from demos (the people) and -kratia (power, rule). In other words, it’s a form of government in which power lies with ‘the people.’ This is the prevailing approach throughout much of the world and, as a cursory consideration of the matter will reveal, it’s a hopelessly vague one. Instead, de Benoist suggests an alternative approach; an historical one. He contends that as the Greeks of Antiquity gave us the term (and the corresponding idea) we should look to them for answers.
Greek democracy had three principle features: isonomy (equality before the law, isotimy (equal rights to access all public offices), and isegory (freedom of expression). It was a direct form of democracy, in which all citizens could take part in the ekklesia or assembly. Citizens didn’t rely on ‘representatives’, they fully participated in the political discourse. Indeed, they were expected to as a part of their citizenship. Already, then, we see a stark difference between Greek democracy and the representative democracies of today in the likes of the Western world. The very term ‘demos’, which is of Doric origin, refers to people who reside in a given territory. This is the next crucial observation made by de Benoist. Greek democracy rested on the notion of citizenship which, in turn, rested upon shared ancestry, shared institutions and shared cultural practices. As de Benoist writes, ‘to be a citizen meant, in the fullest sense of the word, to belong to a homeland – that is, to a homeland and a past.’
With an almost ruthless and tidal analysis, de Benoist also confronts the notion that liberalism (understood in the classical sense) has no direct relationship with democracy understood in an historically. More than this, he challenges the notion that democracy is inevitable (as a product of linear history) or inferior or superior to any other form of government. He acknowledges that, whilst forms of direct democracy have always had a place in the European experience, it’s alien to other people and civilisations around the globe. He cites Moses I. Finley who wrote “It was that sense of community, fortified by the state religion, by their myths, and their traditions, which was an essential element in the pragmatic success of Athenian democracy.”’ He added, “in Greece, freedom meant the rule of law and participation in the decision-making progress, not the possession of inalienable rights.”
What ‘The Problem of Democracy’ really exposes is that the so-called ‘democracies’ of today share nothing in common with the democratic tradition of those who produced it; the ancient Greeks. But why should this matter? After all, the Greeks were organising themselves in small city-states in a radically different epoch with radically different challenges. It matters because human nature doesn’t change, regardless of the externals. Despite the romantic, melioristic ramblings of the classical liberals’ human beings aren’t simply ‘Individuals.’ We’re the product of an evolutionary discourse stretching back millions upon millions of years. A social species, we’re defined by our physical and cultural characteristics and a role and a place within an historic collective. This is why direct forms of democracy are so powerful. They’re predicated on participation. By participating in the political, in institutions and the culture that shapes them, we cease to be a social atom and find our place in the historical project that is our people.
Liberal democracies simply depoliticise society by creating a society of rootless, atomised ‘individuals’ driven solely by economic impulses. Our ‘participation’ is reduced to appointing alleged experts who then proceed to pursue self-interest uncontested until the next election. If the Greeks were right, the answer is simply a question of learning to govern ourselves as a people. No representatives, only delegates appointed by an ethno-cultural group cognizant of its roots and identity. This short book, or perhaps lengthy essay, is a must read for critics of the prevailing order, liberalism and globalism.
To conclude, a particularly powerful passage from its finale…
Democracy means the power of the people, which is to say the power of an organic community that has historically developed in the context of one or more given political structures – for instance a city, nation, or empire. Where there is no folk but only a collection of individual social atoms, there can be no democracy. Every political system which requires the disintegration or levelling of peoples in order to operate – or the erosion of individuals’ awareness of belonging to an organic folk community – is to be regarded as undemocratic.