Lately I’ve been reading Plato’s The Republic. Part of this is an analysis of different types of government. Here are three points Plato made on democracy:
– In a democracy freedom is paramount, and the people will want greater and greater freedom. Any constraint on freedom becomes unbearable to them.
– In a democracy people will not accept that some pleasures should be encouraged while others are bad and should be subdued – instead they say that all pleasures are equal.
– An excess of freedom brings about the end of the democracy and the beginning of tyranny.
That second point. Am I describing Plato or todays newspaper?
So why is it that people in a democracy would see all pleasures as equal?
Here are a few thoughts amounting to a partial explanation. In the beginning of Western democracy, a number of groups had their own ideas about what was true. They all agreed there was such a thing as objective reality, that there was an order in nature that we ought to submit to, and an objective morality based on this, but they couldn’t agree on the details. Because of this they decided that the government would be neutral on this point. There would be no official ideology. (Separation of church and state.)
But in some strange way, people take their cues on how to think about the order of things partly from the system of government that surrounds them. So if you live in a monarchy, most likely you will conceive of the world as objectively real, and authority as objectively real, and all representing an order in nature that ought to be respected and submitted to.
In a democracy, people think differently. If the government is neutral between different ideas about the natural order of things, decisions are made without reference to any natural order of things. From there, “there is no such thing as a natural order of things” follows, and from this, to no truly objective morality – there are only individual wants and preferences.
But since the idea of objective reality is tied to the idea of a natural order of things, and the idea of a natural order is tied to the idea of objective morality, the rejection of an objective morality and a natural order of things upholding it will naturally lead to a rejection of objective reality itself. All is subjective, all that matters is my wants and needs and desires.
But if all is subjective and all that matters is my own desires and wants and needs, anyone who says that there truly is an objective order of things, and we ought to submit to it – that person becomes an enemy.
The end of democracy
Now, how might democracy end in tyranny? Western decay is advanced enough I think we can make some educated guesses here. Here are some dangers to our democracy:
Imagine you are a media mogul with a large reach over the population. Now, imagine you and the other moguls want a certain policy changed. If your reach is large enough you can control:
– That your topic is discussed
– What options are discussed
– How each side is framed
– How people should feel about each side
The methods of emotional manipulation are well understood. So if you hit the right buttons for long enough, your side will win with certainty, as humans have almost no defences against propaganda.
Who will stop you, given that we have freedom of the press?
In a democracy, people will agitate for changes that they think are right. With the right propaganda, you can brainwash the public, and they will campaign as if it was their idea all along.
Democracy requires open debate. Freedom of speech is useless without freedom from propaganda.
2. The Maverick
Let’s say our media mogul from point 1 gets power-drunk. Instead of asking what the people need to happen, he drenches public debate with his own ideas, one after the other.
Although the mogul’s ideas win support, the people become resentful that their own needs are being ignored. But they can’t elect any ordinary politician to meet their needs – such politicians are too busy servicing the mogul.
So they elect a complete outsider.
The competence and sanity of the outsider is a roll of the dice.
(Helloooo Donald Trump.)
3. An Official Ideology
If the mogul and his successors go far enough, they may be able to install an official ideology – by that I mean a way of thinking installed into the system so that it is difficult or impossible to change by democratic means. Using their media access, they persuade the population that rights must be restricted against their opponents, whom they have presented as evil.
At this point, the democracy has changed to some sort of ideological quasi-democratic nation-state, with many important questions off-limits.
Since the mogul’s propaganda is now official, and freedom of speech restricted, even to think against the ideology becomes difficult. The mogul’s successors become more convinced of their righteousness in their self-made echo chamber. They introduce more and more rules to reinforce the ideology and restrict the remaining opposition.
(Helloooo Soviet Union.)
4. New Management
Alternatively, someone wins power who sees the mogul for what he is and determines to bring him down.
By nationalising the press.
Now the state controls the press.
Now we have a “managed democracy”.
But if this is skilfully done, the new leader will learn from the mogul’s mistakes and won’t overplay his hand.
(Helloooo Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.)
5. Game Over
But a sufficiently ruthless leader will learn a different lesson from the mogul’s demise. The mogul’s mistake? He didn’t eliminate elections. He didn’t shoot anyone. By manipulating the system this ruthless leader will slowly but surely remove the constraints that remain.
Finally, a democratic change of power will be impossible and we will have a tyranny.
(Helloooo Josef Stalin.)