“I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age”
The Tempest, act 2, sc. 1
I finished my coffee, closed my book, paid my bill and got up to leave. When the unknown man at the next table – whom I will henceforth called UM – said to me, “May I ask you a question? You are a frequent customer here. I observed that you read slowly, mark your books, often stop to seemingly reflect… In my view, you qualify as a free thinker, and therefore a free spirit. So may I ask you, whom will you vote for in the next elections? Bush or Clinton? I am sure you agree, elections are the embodiment of democracy and democracy is the embodiment of freedom. And a free thinker must love freedom by definition
ME. I am flattered that you consider my opinion of any value. But I must disappoint you. I will not vote. I reflected at length on the rituals of democracy, and I consider them the expense of spirit in a waste of time.(1)
UM. But surely you must admit that voting is the foundation of democracy. Every thinking person believes it. How can you be the exception?
ME. I hope not to be the lone exception, but how do you define democracy? As Socrates used to say, I don’t mind what words a man uses, as long as he defines their meaning.
UM.Democracy is, of course, government by the people, one person one vote. It may not be perfect but if you quote Socrates, I will quote Churchill, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Freedom and democracy are the daughters of the French Revolution. Fraternity is still missing but it may be just a matter of time.
ME. If by democracy you mean the government by the people, you couldn’t be more wrong. It does not exist here, nor anywhere else. It is a fiction, based on the astuteness of a few and the gullibility of many.
UM. You like hyperboles. I’d be tempted to say, “These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh in the alehouse”(2)
ME. On the contrary. True democracy existed long ago and only briefly. In the Athens of old, public offices were drawn by lottery among those who qualified – in the instance, the heads of a household. Names were mixed in an urn and a boy with a scarf on his eyes drew the names. The process was called ‘sortition’, that is, the selection of officers from a larger pool of candidates.
Aristotle clearly stated the argument, “Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely… The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.”
And he was even more categorical on elections, “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”
There you have it. Sortition is the only and true democracy. At elections time, there is a lottery. Your next door neighbor can be President, the postman Minister of Defense, the milkman Minister of Agriculture and so on till the last public office.
True democracy is a lottery. Every other political structure, including voting-based government is camouflaged aristocracy, though given the times, even aristocracy is a misnomer. The Greek word “aristo” means “best”, hence government by the best. A closer definition, to borrow again from the Greek, would be “coprocracy”, or government by the shittiest.
In any event, aristocracy or coprocracy, it is still oligarchic, as per the Aristotle whom I just quoted.
UM. Come on now! Even a child understands that for democracy to function, in a world as complex as ours, there must be pre-qualifying selections of competent people.
ME. I thought we were talking of government by the people, as you defined it. And now you tell me that democracy is the government by the competent. I see a contradiction here. According to a renowned revolutionary thinker, even a cook can be part of government.
UM. Paradoxes again. Democracy is based on voting but the electable must be chosen carefully. The cook can be in government, but only if she is qualified and not just in the name of democracy. Don’t you see what would happen otherwise?
ME. Let me understand. Now you say that democracy is government by the people, or rather by the persons extracted from the people but experts in specific fields, economy, finance, management etc. Is this what you expect from the candidates? … Chiefest men of discipline to cull the plots to best advantages? (3)
UM. (smiling as he who is near winning his argument). Exactly.
ME. I take your word for it or rather, I pretend to believe you, and then I say, look around. How many of the elected are qualified experts in their field of governance and how many are plain politicians, learning of a problem when they are already deep into it? How many are experts, and how many are but masters of cunning?
UM. It’s no use to continue this conversation. You deny that there is democracy, on the basis of some antique or superior ideology that I don’t know of and refuse to know.
ME. No superiority is involved here. You attribute to your vote an importance it does not have. What you call democracy is the negation of the individual. When you vote, you are part of the public. And the public is a phantom, a monstrous abstraction, a mirage.
The public is a host, but it is a body which can never be reviewed; it cannot even be represented because it is an abstraction – as equally abstract is the “average man”, a statistical invention by the XIX French mathematician Adolphe Quotelet. It is a fiction much as the “public” is. A man is part of the public only when he is nothing. For when he is really himself, he ceases to be the inexistent “average man” (however much he may think he is). Therefore the electorate consists of inexistent average men who are part of a fictional public.
UM (mildly overwhelmed). Tell me sincerely, throw off your mask. Are you a Communist? A Fascist, an Anarchist? Do you deny the glory of the Declaration of Independence? The spirit of the Founding Fathers who created a Constitution that serves as model for the world?
ME. I am none of the above. I only try to reason with my own head, rather than that of others. You first encouraged me to vote and said that by voting we elect democratic governments. Maybe I should have kept quiet but I couldn’t resist and answered that it is not true.
As for the Declaration of Independence, I should observe that they indeed believed that, “All men are created equal”, less the slaves for they were not human, the native Americans for they were not white, the women for they were not men and the poor for they were not rich, and therefore could not vote. As for the Founding Fathers, even a little research will prove that they were men of principles and men of profit, who put their profit ahead of their principles. As for the Constitution, it has become a verbal talisman of approbation, to give the sanction of a mythical third-party truth to personal opinions. But it seems to me that we have drifted away from the subject, which, if I am not mistaken, was the elections.
UM.But what kind of government comes out of the elections, according to you?
ME. I told you, once upon a time aristocratic, and recently mostly coprocratic governments. They are based on the interests and humors of individuals who, having now complete control of the instruments of persuasion, persuade everyone that he is the inexistent average man, belonging to the equally inexistent public.
For there was once the medieval aristocracy of the warriors, to defend the people from the barbarians, then the aristocracy of the mercantile rich and now the aristocracy of the cunning.
UM. But my vote is free and no one can force me to vote for him or her.
ME. The cunning man does not force anyone, otherwise how could he be cunning? Through his propaganda he convinces the electors that by voting for him, they vote for themselves. And when they take the bait he tells them the fib of democracy. Ever since “popular representation” was introduced, aristocratic or coprocratic governments hide behind this curtain of nonsense.
Why do you think that billions are spent in Public Relations, which is new-speak for the Industry of Cunning? Because the number is greater of those whom custom has enabled to judge by words and images, than those whom interest or study has qualified to examine things.
UM. You are telling me that I am stupid and gullible.
ME. On the contrary, you and hundreds of millions are victims of “the seeming truth which cunning times put on to entrap the wisest.”(4)
I am only saying that “popular representation” has created the “electoral man”, manipulable through propaganda. The relatives of “electoral man” are the “consumer man” and the “television viewer.” Without realizing it, the uncounted millions of electoral men are the honey bees of King Henry V, who have been taught obedience,
“Obedience: for so work the honey bees,
Creatures that, by rule in nature, teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.” (5)
Your reverence for democracy proves it. Yours is full-spectrum subjection, the domestic counterpart of full-spectrum dominance of the world.
UM. You are a subversive.
ME. Maybe, but I do not bother anyone and I do nothing to expose the nature of the fable. If there is subversion it is in my head only. Unlike you, I do not think my vote to be worth anything and I have certainly nothing to share with the coprocracy. Rarely, but it has happened, the coprocracy has been checked by events that even its cunning could not predict or prevent. Nobody can claim a monopoly in the ability “to sound the bottom of the aftertimes.” (6)
UM. Then you are a utopian?
ME. No, but I think that in this phase of our so-called humanity, the dominion of the cunning is supreme. I hope that humanity may survive it, I don’t know.
UM. But then again, what are you?
ME. I am the opposite of a utopian, if you really want to give me a label, call me a realist. Utopians believe in the perfectibility of man. I don’t. I believe that to a large but not-measurable extent, men are stupid, evil and happy to be so.
UM. How can you prove that utopians are wrong?
ME. With the onset of the industrial revolution, workers toiled for twelve hours per day or more. Utopians held that the exploitation of labor prevented men from becoming better and proper human beings. With more leisure time, men could give free reign to their creativity, in music, painting, poetry, or in developing a passion for historic or scientific research. Now they work much less than they did in the XIX century, but their interests are more or less the same. Some work more to earn more. Some find delight in shopping malls. Some go on packaged holidays. Many live from one sport event to the next, struggling to fill with something the “lazy foot of time.” (7)
Science, art and philosophy did not gain much from the liberation of the proletariat. In these conditions, to the “liberated” man, even more so applies the line, “…… Commanded always by the greater gust; such is the lightness of you common men.” (8)
And by voting, he unwittingly panders to the candidates’ arrogance of conceit and extravagance of belief.
UM. Not everyone can be an artist or a scientist. But the aspiration for justice and social equality cannot be suppressed. Men aspire to equality and fraternity. Maybe this last aspiration is still weak, but the others are strong.
ME. If you say so, but I doubt it. Men aspire to be free, but they also want to be restrained and they know it, for they do not trust themselves. Freedom without restraint would be a nightmare. Hence they love freedom and restraint in equal measure. And men dislike equality – their governments even more so. Just consider the current vitriolic hatred towards the only country in the world that attempted the experiment of equality – a still lingering hatred for having tried, however mixed the success may have been. And with the utmost extravagance of determined wickedness, your democratic government has killed millions, just in this century, while currently readying to increase the toll. I tell you, at the moment, our desire to live in a better world clashes with reality. It is a dream, or perhaps, the mockery of unquiet slumbers. (9)
UM. But how about fraternity? Will you deprive men of even this last avenue of hope?
ME. Feel free to hope. After all “hope is swift and flies with swallows’ wings. Kings it makes Gods and meaner creatures kings.” (10)
But I believe that men do not love each other, now as two thousand years ago. Civilization has spread a thin layer of good manners and good intentions. It enables us to believe that we are changed, that we live in democracies, that we can solve any problem. Look at racism, “solved” by placing a black man in charge. A solution which, if anything, has increased racism, by smoothing it at the top, creating a layer of African-American elites, whose success is mostly due to the increased suffering and sacrifice of their less affluent or disenfranchised brethren, confined to abodes of poverty and gloom. (check blog http://yourdailyshakespeare.com/license-to-kill/equalities)
UM. But can there not be a more advanced form of democracy?
ME. No. There can only be a more advanced use of reason. Ban utopian solutions, illusions and emotional drives of unjustified hatred or of unjustified worship. Problems must be studied with care, time and determination. But in the empire of cunning, the people are the obstacle, until they are made to think the way you do. Otherwise they are the enemy. Look at the militarization of the police, if you don’t wish to believe it.
UM. You are a nihilist, an enemy of humanity, an enemy of democracy. You are a prophet of doom. Reasoning with you is impossible
ME. Please tell me, does not what you call democracy imply respect and consideration to other peoples’ opinion? Or do you subscribe in truth to what Mark Twain said in jest, namely that in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane?
UM. Anarchist! Defeatist! Terrorist! Enemy of America!
ME. I see that you are a champion of democracy and worthy to be so.
At that moment, I suddenly realized that, “… We are the stuff that dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” (11)
And I woke up.
- From Sonnet 129 — 2. Othello — 3. King John — 4. Merchant of Venice — 2. King Henry V — 6. King Henry IV, p2 — 7. As You Like It — 8. King Henry VI, p3 — 9. 10. King Richard III — 11. The Tempest
In the play. Gonzalo speculates about what he would do if he were king of the island where he has been stranded along with Antonio and companions.
Inspiration and thread from a short story by S. Vassalli
Image location: https://www.google.com/search?q=cartoon+of+electors&biw=1814&bih=924&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=0CAYQ_AUoAWoVChMIwrSmqv2SxgIVg2itCh1JfAB0#tbm=isch&q=cartoon+of+puzzled+man&imgrc=n-QSd_9bsCPD6M%253A%3BURUFbjz0KT9AsM%3Bhttps%253A%252F%252Fjainricha.files.wordpress.com%252F2010%252F01%252Fcartoon-confused-240×300.jpg%3Bhttp%253A%252F%252Fpixshark.com%252Fconfused-cartoon-man.htm%3B240%3B300
Jimmie – What a fine writer you are. Others grope to define the problem with voting and then propose a fix – public funding, more financial disclosure… You get to the heart of it. If you create a predictable system, the cunning will learn to drive it. If we can’t have a system that trusts in flipping a coin and fate, the best recourse is to withdraw consent by not voting.
Manfor Blacksher said,
“On the contrary. True democracy existed long ago and only briefly. In the Athens of old, public offices were drawn by lottery among those who qualified – in the instance, the heads of a household. Names were mixed in an urn and a boy with a scarf on his eyes drew the names. The process was called ‘sortition’, that is, the selection of officers from a larger pool of candidates.”
* your head out for just a moment, Jimmy. Athenian democracy worked just like a clock that was right twice a day. And it wouldn’t have stood at all without the silent assistance of a slave-class: working servants, foreign serfs, children, and women.
Of course, the oligarchs won after a while. Socrates worked hard at his Academy outside town to train a class of debonaire young men capable of being his kind of handsome, magnificent statesmen. And like the attentive, loving students they were, they fomented a number of rebellions against Athens’ depraved democracy by mob rule. I mean, everyone knew that Hesiod’s old aristocratic warrior class was a bit passe, but a new enlightened autocracy by ripped and ambitious geniuses isn’t anything that would bother us. It’s kinda like Silicon Valley. ‘The sort of meritocracy that would have made Ayn Rand want to snuggle with old Socrates.
Athenian democracy was much-maligned by Athenians, and it was despised as one of the lowest modes of civic polity until it began getting reassessed in the Renaissance with Roman republicanism. Even then, it took centuries for modern Western democracy to mean something like universal suffrage for men. And those children and women and people-of-color had to sustain the tradition of the slave class that enabled meritocratic citizen-democracy to work in it’s unadulterated form.
‘Feeling a bit put out about the traducement of American democracy by big money? Well, in an age when anybody might potentially vote — including people who don’t go to your church, don’t fit in at the country club, and couldn’t get a house in your gated community if they tried — it’s essential that the Socratic vision of manifest merit by dint of education and good breeding exert its classical influence by reaching selflessly into the trust funds and money pots that free associations rub together.
* your head out for just a moment, Voltaire. American democracy worked just
like a clock that was right twice a day. And it wouldn’t have stood at
all without the silent assistance of a slave-class: working poor, middle class serfs, children soldiers, the american dreamers, the naive and white men.
Of course, the oligarchs won
after a while. Harvard and Yale worked hard at the Academy outside town to train
a class of debonaire young political science majors capable of being a kind of “we know best” statesmen. And like the attentive, loving praetorian guard they
were, they fomented a number of rebellions within the mob and exploited them.
wonderful piece Jimmie that I will store away. Voltaire 1964 seems to think you were advocating a return to Old Greece. But I believe you are too realistic for that. ‘Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upwards’ and maybe the best we can aspire to is benevolent despotism. Things were simpler back on the veldt when we formed our mindset. But even then we chose leaders. But at least we could hold them accountable, face to face and they did not have the power to destroy the world.
Perhaps we should not give the Greeks so much credit for being the fountainhead of Democracy. Selecting leaders by lottery? You can’t be serious; and the Greek(s), who suggested this, couldn’t have been either.
Ruling with the consent of the governed in the basic formula of good governance. Now it is obvious that the governed could be cajoled into thinking that they were being governed with their own consent, when in reality they were just accepting of the rulers which were selected by a process in which their consent did not matter.
When people talk of Athens and democracy, My mind goes to the slaves in the silver mines, dying from lead poisoning, to keep athens strong.
All thoughts about the evolution of democracy should just die in those silver mines.
What I think of is how for the first time in human history, slavery is illegal. That is a singular great accomplishment of this civilization. We have moved on to the equality of all including women. A large part of the populous is so ill educated they have no idea.