Traditional Britain Group October 2017 Conference: How modernity destroys our political culture
by The Editor
Russian dissident and conservative intellectual Alexander Boot recently spoke at the Traditional Britain Group's Conference. This is the text of his remarks.
by Alexander Boot
I’d like to start with a joke: the Conservative Party. It hasn’t been conservative for a long time, and it looks as if it won’t be a party for much longer either.
The party aspect of it doesn’t concern me very much, but the conservative aspect does. For we sometimes forget what the word means.
Conservatism is defined by the answer to the question: what is it that we’d like to conserve? And that’s where modernity, whichever party it speaks through, gives an unsatisfactory answer.
I use the term ‘modernity’ broadly, to describe a new civilisation emerging out of that great misnomer, the Enlightenment. That mass revolt against the great civilisation of Christendom aimed its blows not just at Christianity, but also its offshoots: cultural, social, economic, intellectual and so forth.
Relevant to our theme, the Enlightenment formed a watershed between the right and the left in politics.
The Left wishes to uproot every shoot of Christendom and sow the ground with coarse salt to make sure nothing grows there ever again.
People I’d describe as real conservatives wish to conserve whatever little is left of Christendom. That’s why they feel about modernity the way trees feel about dogs, and largely for similar reasons.
However, even most of them mysteriously have no quarrel with one Enlightenment product: unchecked democracy of universal suffrage, one vote for every man, woman and increasingly child.
No businessman in his right mind would run a company of 100 employees on the same principle, leaving it to the staff to decide the choice of suppliers, marketing strategies, capital investment and sources of credit.
Yet somehow it’s felt that an infinitely more complicated challenge, that of choosing the people qualified to govern a country of 60 million, can be adequately met by a simple show of hands. This sounds counterintuitive.
However, that exact mode of government has been perched at the top the political totem pole and, like all idols, towers above not only criticism but indeed serious analysis. It’s regarded as the defining characteristic of today’s West, usurping Christianity in that role.
Democracy has become synonymous with liberty, justice, prosperity and all good things in life. It’s widely perceived as the only possible alternative to despotism. Supposedly none other can ever exist or indeed has ever existed.
This is a fallacy on many levels: historical, philosophical, logical or empirically demonstrable.
A few facts.
According to Freedom House, the Washington-based think tank, in 2007 the world could boast 123 electoral democracies – up from 40 in 1972 and zero in 1900.
Thus, say, Victorian England wasn’t a democracy. Presumably it was therefore more despotic than today’s supposedly democratic Columbia or Russia. Democracy, as defined today, is then barely 100 years old.
That’s why I suggest that people take with a grain of salt Churchill’s pronouncement that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
As an Edwardian, Churchill formed his idea of democracy at a time when, according to Freedom House, democracy didn’t exist. Both a staunch monarchist and a committed parliamentarian, Churchill clearly didn’t believe he was living a double life.
To him there was no contradiction in a strong monarchy being balanced by an elected lower house, with the hereditary upper chamber making sure the balance didn’t tip too much to either side.
That was the essence of England’s ancient constitution, one that so many Americans claim doesn’t exist because it hasn’t been written down. In fact, a written constitution is a bit like a prenuptial agreement stipulating the frequency of sex: if you have to write it down, you might as well not bother.
If a constitution isn’t already written in people’s hearts, a written document will be useless. If it’s indeed written there, a written document will be redundant.
Churchill’s other epigram on the subject of democracy is truer to life: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
Tocqueville believed that democracy, which he once described as “the tyranny of the majority”, was the unique property of the United States from the word go. Yet America’s Founders hardly ever spoke of it, at least not in any positive sense.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, not widely perceived as an enemy of progress, once observed that: “A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one per cent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine.”
Fifty-one per cent is of course a pipe dream nowadays: today it often takes merely 30 per cent or even less to confer practically dictatorial powers on a small elite.
The word ‘democracy’ gained some currency only towards the end of the XIX century, when America began to pursue imperial objectives outside the Western Hemisphere.
Yet Lord Acton wrote at roughly the same time that the main conflict during the French Revolution was “a great struggle between democracy and liberty,” thus suggesting that the two terms so often uttered in the same breath just might be mutually exclusive.
Even during the First World War President Wilson utterly befuddled all combatants by defining the objective of the conflict as “making the world free for democracy”.
The XX century is thus the first in which democracy became accepted as a sine qua non of political virtue. Yet one has to acknowledge ruefully that the balance sheet of what the publisher Henry Luce called ‘the American century’ isn’t unambiguously glorious.
More people were killed in that century than in all other centuries of recorded history combined. Only some of the carnage can be ascribed to sophisticated weaponry. Tens of millions were dispatched by expedients long in the public domain: executions, judicial or otherwise; torture; artificial famines; inhuman imprisonment.
Democracy also had a role to play in the death count, for universal suffrage presupposes universal conscription at wartime. If mediaeval princes had to beg their vassals to spare some men for the army, today’s prime ministers can conscript the whole population – and imprison the objectors.
As to liberty, defined as freedom from arbitrary restraints imposed by the state, one can’t help noticing that in most Western countries democracy is increasingly remiss on that score, while also going back on its etymological promise, the rule of the people.
In fact today’s democratic governments have more power over the individual than the most absolute of past monarchs.
I can’t think of any Western prince who extracted half or more of his subjects’ income, something seen as a rightful privilege of today’s prime ministers and presidents.
Nor can I think of any English king who, even had he wanted to, would have been allowed to toss away his realm’s sovereignty, something that democratic Tory, which is to say conservative, administrations have been able to do with blithe ease.
While each great document of English political history reduced the power of the state vis-à-vis the people, today’s laws invariably do exactly the opposite.
Modern governments preserve the sham of pluralism, but in fact theirs is the rule by simulacrum – something that looks like popular rule but in fact isn’t.
The electorate effectively transfers dictatorial powers to its representatives, who are then free to act as autocratically as few autocrats ever did. On the surface of it, this isn’t far from Burke’s idea of republican-style democracy.
But that arrangement could work well only if real choice among eminently qualified candidates existed, as it did in traditional republics. In fact, there’s next to none. The people are typically asked to choose which socialist party within a homogeneous political elite they’d rather have in power.
In Britain, the choice between Labour Full Strength and Labour Lite, aka Tories, is the evil of two lessers.
Moreover, if we look at the leaders of any Western country, including ours, it’s hard to insist that democracy unfailingly elevates to government those fit to govern. “Fit to govern? No, not to live,” was a prescient comment in Macbeth.
It used to be taken for granted that our ministers would not only have a working knowledge of history, philosophy, economics, law and world politics, but would also possess courage, sound intellect and moral integrity.
Such requirements are currently met in no Western country, including Britain.
Just look at the 1815 Congress of Vienna, where the post-Napoleonic shape of Europe was decided by the likes of Castlereagh, Talleyrand, Metternich and Nesselrode.
Looking at their counterparts today, one finds it hard to argue the virtues of unchecked democracy. It’s clearly not designed to produce great statesmen.
In much of the West, democracy has become self-perpetuating spivocracy, with the ruling party empowered to treat the support by a third of the electorate as a mandate to perpetrate constitutional vandalism, best exemplified in this country by Tony Blair’s tenure and each subsequent ‘heir to Blair’.
Meanwhile, purveyors of democracy, of whom the neoconservatives, both American and ours, take pride of place, not only refuse even to consider other options internally, but insist that unchecked democracy is a panacea for any country, regardless of its history, religion or traditions.
The year after the ‘collapse’ of the Soviet Union in 1991 Francis Fukuyama, then a neocon, triumphantly declared that history had ended, meaning that liberal democracy had vanquished, and no further debate was possible.
Well, history has restarted since then, as it did after Hegel made a similar claim following Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Jena. History always restarts.
Fukuyama merely communicated the only view acceptable in polite society. That is, unchecked democracy may have a few drawbacks, but they all spring from repairable mechanical glitches. None of them is attributable to its very nature.
This is a convention I find hard to accept. I think that unchecked democracy is inherently much closer to tyranny than people give it credit for.
Now, the politics of a country or, even broader, a civilisation is always built on a metaphysical foundation. Man’s way of organising political affairs is a reflection of man’s view of himself.
Thus Aristotle wrote “Man is by nature a political animal”. On the other hand, two thousand-odd years later Dr Johnson disagreed: “Public affairs,” he said, “vex no man”.
Despite expressing diametrically opposite views, they were both right. They simply spoke of different men.
Aristotle commented on the man of his time, the pagan Greek, while Samuel Johnson commented on the man of his time, the Christian Westerner.
What we observe now is man taking a backward jump, leapfrogging Johnson’s time and landing smack in the middle of Aristotle’s.
Everybody is once again supposed to be the political animal of Hellenic antiquity, taking a hands-on part in the political process through voting. Except that neither a Plato nor a Praxiteles nor a Sophocles is anywhere in evidence. Nor, more to the point, is a Pericles.
Democracy naturally promotes uniformity, and even in its earliest incarnation it was wary of those who stuck out. In fact, our current obsession with diversity is nothing but an attempt to impose uniformity of thought and speech, punishing those who dare to be different. Uniformity is today’s diversity.
The ethos of political correctness is actually a power tool, a way for a democratic state to control the populace by imposing uniformity. I call this method of government glossocracy, the government of the word, by the word and for the word.
This stands to reason: a dictator whose power is based on the bullet is most scared of bullets; a glossocrat whose power is based on words is most scared of words.
Political correctness is another example of rule by simulacrum. Its purveyors create virtual reality and shove it down people’s throats.
Nobody in his right mind thinks that, for example, maiming the English language by eliminating masculine personal pronouns would solve any real social problems, even supposing for the sake of argument that they exist.
The idea is not to protect the delicate sensibilities of women but to reassert the glossocratic power of the state.
The same goes for assorted presidents and prime ministers who, after every Muslim atrocity, insist that Islam is a religion of peace.
They know it isn’t, and they know we know. But they realise that glossocracy depends on creating virtual reality for its survival.
It’s as if the state is saying to the people: “Yes, we know and you know that what we are saying is silly. But we want you to remember that we can bend your will even to idiocy if such is our desire.”
A modern government, be it democratic or totalitarian, imposes its will by using tools it has at its disposal. And interestingly, both types of government use different tools to achieve the same end: uniformity, which ideological democrats call equality – yet another example of modern corruption of language.
Equality used to mean universal parity before God and the law. That used to be contingent on good behaviour: a criminal, for example, was no longer equal to a law-abiding man; and a sinner forfeited his equality to a virtuous man.
Neither was deemed irredeemable: the criminal could regain equal rights by paying his debt to society, and a sinner could do so by paying his debt to God.
Now, equality means uniformity – parity not only at the starting blocks but also at the finish line. Sameness all around.
Men and women, for example, are supposed not just to have equal rights but to be the same. It’s as if the state has set out to correct God’s error in dividing us into two sexes.
Since the state throws its weight behind all such nonsense, refusal to accept such diktats is increasingly becoming not just socially unacceptable but illegal.
Remembering Cassandra’s fate, it is perilous to make predictions. However it’s relatively safe to predict that, before long, more and more people in the West, including Britain, will be prosecuted not for something they’ve done, but for something they’ve said.
For democracy has always been ruthless to those who refuse to accept its ethos.
Democracy killed Socrates for daring to be different; his disciple Plato narrowly escaped the same fate; Plato’s disciples Alcibiades and Aristotle had to flee Athens one step ahead of the hemlock cup.
No wonder Plato regarded democracy as mob rule, and Aristotle described it as ‘a deviant constitution’. “Democracy,” he wrote, “arose from men’s thinking that if they are equal in any respect, they are equal absolutely.”
Significantly, both thinkers warned about the dangers of any method of government, be it democracy, oligarchy or monarchy, if it’s unbalanced by other methods.
This understanding, later reinforced by just about every serious political thinker from Machiavelli to Montesquieu to Burke, greatly affected the English constitution, based on a delicate balance of various interests and estates.
That balance has now been upset, and in our politics we’re enthusiastically reviving the worst aspects of pagan antiquity.
The Greeks didn’t see the individual as having a sovereign value independent of the good of the polis.
Plato described this pecking order with helpful honesty and unmatched mastery in his Republic and especially in Laws. The polis was everything; the individual qua individual, next to nothing.
The same went for that extension of the individual, his family, which was to be reduced to more or less the state’s breeding farm. Families were there only to serve the state by producing children, ideally boys, potential soldiers.
That’s why in both Greece and Rome people were encouraged to float from one marriage to the next, or one liaison to the next, with no distinction made between children born in or out of wedlock.
Feeble babies were often killed in Sparta, Romans left unwanted baby girls by the roadside to be devoured by wild animals. Because the state had no use for them, they were useless in every sense.
This is the first intimation in history of the relationship since then amply proved: democracy and family are at odds. They aren’t friends, nor even allies, but competitors: the stronger the one, the weaker the other.
Sensing this, John Locke, who in the XVII century laid out the groundwork for the liberal democratic state, countenanced not only divorce but even polygamy: “He that is already married,” he wrote, “may marry another woman with his left hand…”
It’s reassuring to observe how our Lockean modernity is following his ideas – if in Locke’s time hostility to marriage was still inchoate, by now it has grown to full maturity.
And in Britain, the latest assault on that institution, the legalisation of homosexual marriage, was launched by a Conservative government, yet another bright example of today’s larcenous political taxonomy.
Christianity corrected pagan misconceptions by privatising the spirit and internalising man. Human beings were no longer valued just because of their achievements, birth or wealth, but simply because they were indeed human.
In their free time men no longer rushed out to the agora to express themselves. More and more they stayed at home to ponder God, pray and raise their children in the right spirit.
Family gradually became the core institution of society, and politics began to reflect that. Individuals were protected from the state by a thick gasket of local institutions modelled on the family: parish, village commune, township, guild, assembly of elders.
In time, those familial institutions assumed the role of the formulator, educator and custodian of the social and moral order.
It was such institutions that gave physical shape to the three pillars on which, according to Burke, government should rest: prejudice, which is intuitive knowledge; prescription, which is truth passed on by previous generations; and presumption, which is inference from the common experience of mankind.
The power of the traditional, what I call organic, state attenuated as it moved from centre to periphery. It tended to devolve to the lowest sensible level, and localism at least held its own against centralism.
Such subsidiarity was not divisive but unifying, since it went hand in hand with national solidarity.
The nation was glued together by the adhesive of religion, culture, language, custom and tradition – not by an omnipotent central state. That was the thinking behind the Elizabethan Settlement, a vital milestone in the development of the English nation.
It was mostly local government and its magistrates who, along with the church, were responsible for regulating society.
The underlying assumption was that man was fallen and therefore fallible. Hence each community felt it was incumbent upon it to enforce standards of behaviour based on custom, experience and God’s commandments.
Local institutions also checked the power of the next tier up, which in turn applied restraints to the power above itself, all the way up to the royal palace.
The Middle Ages is a term now used mostly pejoratively, the epitome of obscurantism, savagery and tyranny. People forget that it wasn’t only great cathedrals but also great universities that were founded in the Middle Ages.
It was also during the Middle Ages that most political institutions of modernity originated. Tracing them back step by step, we’ll arrive at their ultimate provenance in the Christian doctrine of the autonomous individual, which is the only proven premise for individual freedom.
While early Christians didn’t use the term ‘human rights’, they wouldn’t have been unduly bothered had an intrepid stranger mentioned it to them, provided he could explain what he meant.
By contrast, Plato or Aristotle would have thought the stranger not so much intrepid as mad. People to them had rights as citizens, not as mere human beings.
Since it was from barons’ councils that our modern parliaments have evolved, the post-Hellenic system of representation has ancient roots as well. The same applies to adjudication and property protection, whose historical roots go back to the Old Testament but whose political embodiment was mediaeval.
Above all, during the Middle Ages the individual could feel relatively secure behind the wall of intermediate, familial institutions I mentioned earlier. They were guarantors of liberty.
The transition from Hellenic antiquity to Christendom was precipitated by a radical shift in the understanding of the nature of man, and so was the transition from Christendom to post-Enlightenment modernity.
The new, secular concept of man had no place for original sin. Rather than being sinful and therefore requiring guidance or, if need be, restraint, man was deemed to be perfect to begin with, and furthermore tautologically perfectible.
Some men demonstrably didn’t end up perfect, but only because they were corrupted by civilisation, specifically by Christendom. Hence people were eminently qualified to govern themselves by the expedient of electing the worthiest among them.
Only that way could they overthrow the tyranny of kings, aristocrats and priests. The ordinary man was supposed to possess all the extraordinary qualities necessary for government.
That was the pudding, and the proof was provided by two revolutions, American and French. In both cases a small group of revolutionaries acting in the name of ‘the people’ incited a revolt against presumed tyrants who acted in the name of God.
And in both cases the people found themselves under the yoke of much worse tyrannies than those replaced by the revolutions.
The American and the French revolutions are particularly interesting, since their startling similarity was, and still is, largely misunderstood.
Even one of history’s greatest political minds, Edmund Burke, while brilliantly tearing the French revolution to shreds in his Reflections, was well disposed towards the American one. “A revolution not made, but prevented,” wrote the great Whig.
Yet the contemporaneous Tories begged to differ.
William Pitt the Younger referred to the American Revolution as “most accursed, wicked, barbarous, cruel, unnatural, unjust and diabolical.”
And Dr Johnson quipped: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
Thirty years later, America’s second president John Adams rued, “I once thought our Constitution was a quasi or mixed government, but they had made it… a democracy.”
And another five years later Adams added with laudable hindsight: “Did not the American Revolution produce the French Revolution? And did not the French Revolution produce all the calamities and desolation of the human race and the whole globe ever since?”
French and American revolutionaries, driven by the same Enlightenment ideals, rose against the least tyrannical kings one could imagine, Louis XVI and George III respectively.
While the beastliness of the French revolution is now widely accepted, the American one is wrongly believed to be fundamentally different. It really wasn’t.
In common with all modern revolutions, American philosophes purporting to act in the name of the people falsified facts to justify their claims.
For example, repeating Locke’s fallacy of representation being the only legitimising factor of taxation, they decried taxation without representation and hence demanded their liberation from England.
Yet in England proper the taxes were higher than in America, and most English subjects weren’t represented either. Specifically taxes on tea, which led to the Boston Tea Party, were twice as high in England.
Once Americans were properly represented, their taxes predictably skyrocketed. And what do you know: people found out they disliked taxation even with representation.
The American revolution also adumbrated criminalising not just political deed but also word – and even thought. Those expressing the mildest sympathy for British rule, or even merely suspected of being likely to harbour such feelings, were routinely attacked both by the new-fangled law and the extra-judicial mob.
The law hit suspected infidels with confiscation, fines, imprisonment, deportation from any area threatened by a British advance, confinement to internment camps.
The mob attacked, robbed and tortured suspected Tories by tarring and feathering. The infidels would be made to recant publicly and forced, often at gun point, to take an oath of allegiance to the new republic.
Even the number of victims of both American and French upheavals is similar if we justifiably regard the Civil War as the second act of the American revolution.
When America began to see herself as a world power and the flag bearer of modernity, she found herself in competition with the organic states of Christendom.
She had to ride into the battle against them under a banner bearing a suitably seductive slogan, and democracy did nicely. It was only then, towards the end of the XIX century, that democracy run riot was touted as the sole champion of liberty.
No traditional, organic state could be allowed to stand in the way of the Enlightenment contrivance: modern democracy, spearheaded by America and based on mythical consent or equally mythical social contract.
Since neither Hobbes nor Locke nor their French followers could pinpoint the granting of ‘consent’ to any specific historical event, they had to talk about some nebulous ‘social contract’, an idea later popularised by Rousseau.
An important aspect of ‘consent’, as understood by Lockeans everywhere, is that it’s irrevocable: once given, or rather presumed to have been given, it can’t be reclaimed by any peaceful means.
Yet in no conceivable way could it be true that a third or even a fourth of the population electing a government have given consent on behalf of the rest of the people as well.
This is patently ludicrous, as is the whole idea of consent, which in reality is neither sought by politicians nor given by voters.
Also, any real agreement includes terms under which it may be terminated. Yet no ‘social contract’ can have such a clause.
Therefore violence is the only recourse either party has, meaning that in a modern state a revolution is not so much an aberration as a logical extension of the ‘social contract’, the only way for the people to withdraw their so-called ‘consent’.
Throughout political history, the difficulty always lay in maintaining a workable balance between centralism and localism.
Like any balance, this one relies on the strength and immobility of its fulcrum – the underlying metaphysical premise. What people do largely depends on what they think, and what they think largely depends on what they believe.
Whatever the slogans of any post-Enlightenment democracy, it has to presuppose the political primacy of the collective over the individual, the will of the collective allegedly being expressed by a small governing elite.
Democracy therefore presupposes the primacy of centralism over localism, of a big state over a small man whose political self-expression used to rely on local institutions.
Christianity, on the other hand, cultivated in its adherents an aversion to the big state, what with its innately totalitarian tendency to override private pursuits. The old religion simply could not be twisted enough to accommodate the new ethos, so it had to be destroyed. Democracy became the new creed.
Yet in reality the promise of democracy is larcenous when it’s unchecked by other methods of government. By atomising the vote into millions of particles, democracy renders each individual vote meaningless.
In a modern Western country, such as Britain, true conservatives have no more ways of influencing policy than they did in the Soviet Union.
What has any weight at all is an aggregate of votes, a faceless, impersonal bloc. Consequently, political success in democracies depends on the ability to put such blocs together.
This has little to do with statesmanship. Coming to the fore instead are such qualities as disloyalty, cynicism, a knack for demagoguery, photogenic appearance, absence of constraining principles, and an unquenchable thirst for power at any cost.
When they succeed, our newly elected, typically incompetent leaders understandably want to reduce their accountability. Hence they strive to put distance between themselves and the people who have elected them.
They seek to remove every remaining bit of power from the traditional local bodies, which stay close to the voters, and to shift it to the centralised Leviathan, claiming all the time that the people are governing themselves.
Thus to say that growing statism undermines democracy is like saying that pregnancy undermines sex.
The subsequent transfer of power to international bodies, which is to say as far away from the national electorate as geography will allow, is a natural extension of the same process.
Bitten by the bug of centralising expansion of the state, the governing elite no longer wants to stop at the national borders. It has to remove itself even further from the people who gave it power.
This partly explains the otherwise inexplicable rise of the downright wicked European Union. The EU isn’t so much a threat to modern democracy as its direct consequence.
The burgeoning political centralisation of modernity reflects a deeper trend, that of reversing two thousand years of Christendom and reverting to idolatry and paganism.
Falling by the political wayside is the familial localism inherent to Christendom. It has been replaced by adulation of central government, leading in extremis to totalitarianism.
Yet in an important sense all modern states are totalitarian, in that they seek control over areas hitherto seen as being off-limits for governmental meddling.
In the Anglophone West particularly the entire complexity of political life has been reduced to the democratic-undemocratic dichotomy.
This results in appalling errors of judgement.
Look, for example, at how Tony Blair et al effectively drove the last nail into the coffin of England’s ancient constitution based on the balance between the elected power of the Commons and executive power of the crown, with the hereditary House of Lords making sure the balance didn’t tilt too far to either end.
People remained largely indifferent to that vandalism because they had been brainwashed to accept the argument that the Lords was lamentably undemocratic, which is of course its whole point.
Undemocratic means impervious to party-political pressures, which is exactly what the House of Lords is supposed to be.
The same goes for foreign policy, for we’ve been tricked into believing that any country where people vote is good by definition, and vice versa.
This makes us vulnerable to deception. Numerous Middle Eastern and African tyrannies have learned that, if they scream ‘democracy’ with histrionic conviction, the West will pay them in coin – and if they don’t, the payment may come in the shape of drones and bombing raids.
Also, by eagerly accepting at face value the canard of democracy in a kleptofascist Russia and trying to impose democracy on the Muslim world, our spivocratic leaders have made our own world extremely dangerous.
We in the West have forgotten that the first thing to ask about a country should be not ‘is it democratic?’ but ‘is it good?’. Thinking that the two are synonymous is intellectually feeble and, what’s worse, morally indefensible.
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