Classic Essays

Democracy is a Kind of Death, part 3

by William Gayley Simpson

IT SHOULD BE clear that the primary object to be sought by every healthy society and to be conserved by every sound and responsible government is something very different from the materialistic absorption in raising the standard of living of the masses. To be sure, the welfare of the people is of the utmost vital importance and is sought inevitably, even though incidentally, in every society in a state of health, in its pursuit of the primary end of its existence. But this primary end is, ultimately, a spiritual thing. For the very ability to appreciate it and to serve it depends upon capacity to recognize the spiritual quality inherent in character, to choose it in preference to lower values, and to love it enough to be willing to sacrifice oneself for it.

It would seem that thus far we ought all to be in agreement. But it may be that some of my readers will reject my statement of the end for which any significant society must exist. If so, the difference between us might be traceable to our different reading of history, a difference that it might be mutually helpful to explore; but I suspect that it would spring rather from a difference of taste. And here is a gulf that cannot be bridged. He who can face either his own life or that of his kind without an ineluctable concern for quality, without an insatiable desire and a relentless demand that it ever go upward, by that one fact immediately places himself, to my way of thinking, in the class of “mass-man,” of “mob,” of those whose every word and very look and bearing reveal that they lust only after comfort and security and pleasure, and who resent and ever ask to be excused from any demand upon them for self-discipline or for austerity of living. With such people there is no use in our attempting to make common cause. When one calls white what another calls black, it is time to part company.

But with those who find congenial my statement of the proper aims with which any healthy society must organize its life, I am now ready to take up the fundamental question underlying both this chapter and the next. That is: To whom should we with most confidence entrust the direction of affairs in society, and how should we go about finding such men and placing them at the helm? Democracy, under which control passes into the hands of common men, most men, and ultimately of “mass-man,” is one answer. Aristocracy, with or without monarchy, which aims to entrust control and direction to men of superior character and ability, is another. Let us proceed first to examine the claims of the former.

“Democracy” is a term commonly used very loosely. Properly, it designates a particular form of government. In terms of Aristotle’s famous threefold classification, it is a government of the state not by the One, nor by the Few, but by the Many — that is, as usually conceived, by the majority of the entire people. It has been called “inverted Monarchy,” which suggests a pyramid stood on its apex — with a rather precarious balance, one would suspect. More loosely, the term may even refer to a way of thinking or feeling favorable to the rule or the welfare of the common people, the “demos,” the lower part of the nation as a whole. It has no necessary connection with representation, which is a modern device born of the attempt to extend democratic practice to states too large to admit of personal participation in government. But it assumes active interest, initiative, and responsibility on the part of the ordinary man.

The movement of the people to get the government into their own hands seems always to be connected with, and to follow upon the heels of, the failure of some aristocratic form of government to fulfill the function that was its traditional duty to fulfill and long had fulfilled. Until my next chapter I put off the question which form of aristocratic government is best calculated to care for the common people, and indeed to ensure the well-being of the entire nation. But let it be said immediately, that once any aristocracy, whether nobility or monarchy, has ceased to father the people and to be their protector, it has failed in one of its original, primary, and inalienable responsibilities, and has ceased to justify its existence.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of the democratic movement in England. The people lost faith in the lords as their protectors only when the lords began to identify themselves with the rising capitalist exploiters, and joined with them in draining the life out of the people. The main drive behind the people’s move for political power lay in their sheer and desperate misery. Since it seemed that the lords would not provide for their welfare, they must needs undertake to provide for it themselves. It may be questioned whether their effort was according to wisdom, but it was certainly understandable and justifiable. And in view of our nearness to the undeniable and infamous failure of this aristocracy, from which most of us have formed all the impression of aristocracy that we have, it is easy to understand also the prevalence of the opinion that “though individuals may refrain from exploiting a privilege for their own advantage . . . no class ever does so for long.” Yet history seems to challenge this pronouncement. It is certain that some aristocracies have lasted for very long periods — that of Venice, for instance, nearly a thousand years; and that of Egypt perhaps three thousand. A Communist, with his one-track mind and narrow prepossessions, may be ready to explain all such as systems of exploitation maintained by the sword. But such a doctrine, however useful to revolutionary propaganda, is not supported either by the experience or the good sense of mankind. The truth is, to quote Ortega y Gasset, that “there is no ruling with janissaries. As Talleyrand said to Napoleon: ‘You can do everything with bayonets, Sire, except sit on them.’ And to rule is not the gesture of snatching at power, but the tranquil exercise of it. In a word, to rule is to sit down, be it on the throne, the curule chair, the front bench, or the bishop’s seat. The State, in fine, is the state of opinion, a position of equilibrium.” And thus we “arrive at a formula which is the well-known, venerable, forthright commonplace: there can be no rule in opposition to public opinion.” For in the long run, regardless of the form government takes, it is the people who decide.

If an aristocracy has lasted long, therefore, it is the natural and just inference that it enjoyed the confidence and loyalty of the people. It fulfilled a necessary and vital function in a way so satisfactory as to make the people secure and contented. On the other hand, history makes it no less evident that aristocracies have failed and given place to democracies. But does this, really, prove anything more than that aristocracies are like most everything else in that, with the lapse of time, they tend to wear out, or because of fatal mistakes finally break down? It surely does not prove aristocracies essentially unsound either in theory or in practice. On the contrary, history as I read it, supports my conviction that aristocracy is the form a great people’s life tends to take in its period of health, that it is under this form its greatness is achieved and longest maintained, that democracy appears only when its vitality has begun to break, and that the very advent of democracy therefore is a symptom of its sickness and a portent of its approaching dissolution.

That the people should attempt to take power into their own hands and themselves make provision for their own welfare, when their right and proper help has failed them and no other help is to hand, is, I repeat, understandable enough and even justifiable enough. But I am convinced that the mass of the people, being what they are, and for the most part can only remain, are incompetent even to make provision for their own welfare according to wisdom. Moreover, in their effort to center the entire organization of society around this end, they are likely to sacrifice the ultimate worth of their life as a people and even to open the gates to catastrophe. It may seem very clever of Bernard Shaw to say, “The great purpose of democracy is to prevent your being governed better than you want to be governed.” But a little thought shows this to be nothing but glib and dangerous nonsense. In reality, no people can be governed too well. They can be governed too much, but never too wisely. They can never afford to dispense with the very best government that they can get. Upon good government depends not only the health and happiness of the people, but also their historical significance. For lack of it, they may even be brought to extinction. If by some prescience it could be certainly known that only by the most gifted government could the suffering and humiliation of a national disaster be averted, then even the commonest of the common people would have the wit to choose to be ruled by those deemed most competent and most to be relied upon to ensure such government. And doubtless, it has been an instinct of this very sort, and nothing less, that has supported every true aristocracy that has ever existed. The people have believed that under their aristocracy they were better provided for than they could ever provide for themselves. Nevertheless, the feeling that prevails today, be it sound or false, is that the vital and necessary ends for which social organization exists can be served best by the people themselves.

In the modern situation, there is one outstanding reason for this in addition to the breakdown of all healthy aristocracy. This is the fact, stressed by the eminent economist Werner Sombart, that after a very slow growth over a period of twelve hundred years, the population of Europe in the one century between 1800 and 1914, leaped from 180 to 460 millions! The figures given by Professor S. J. Holmes of the University of California, are in essential agreement, and add that in somewhat less than this time the population of the United States increased from 6 million to 77 million, twelve-and-a-half fold. The stage of civilization was thus filled and overfilled with a mass of newcomers who arrived with such suddenness that the cultural institutions of society were unable to assimilate them, and in such millions that their very numbers created a power pressure that has proved irresistible. They swarm everywhere and occupy places formerly belonging only to the elite (of one sort or another), not because of any superiority of character or intelligence, or even of mere training, but solely because of sheer mass weight. It has been what Rathenau called the “vertical invasion of the barbarians.” Probably, it was a phenomenon unprecedented in history.

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Source: Which Way, Western Man?

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