Democracy on the Brink: A History of Crisis since World War I

Illustration: Simon Pemberton

Illustration: Simon Pemberton

Recently there have been a couple of good articles  on the fate of democracy posted by The Guardian in conjunction with the publication of a book by David Runciman called The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present. The first article entitled “The trouble with democracy” was by Runciman himself, broadly summarising the contents of his book. And the second article by Jonathan Freedland was a review of the book itself.  I recommend both articles for those who share a concern for the fate of democracy.

This is what I like about Simon Pemberton’s illustration that accompanies Runciman’s article, and which I have reproduced above. One might call it “Modern Man at the edge of time” or even “Modern Mind at the end of its tether”. Either way, it captures of mood of being on the brink, of being at that place Blake described as being “on the abyss of the five senses, where a flat sided steep frowns over the present world.”

First of all, I’m pleased that Runciman has noted that World War I was a critical watershed event for the Modern Era, and that if we speak of “Late Modernity” or “post-modernity” at all, it is because it dates from this event when the Modern Age entered the crucible and into crisis (some now calling it a “death spiral”).  This was noted, too, even at that time by the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy and by the cultural philosopher Jean Gebser, the latter identifying the crisis as a crisis of consciousness — the breakdown of “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” that became evident in the disillusionment of the intellectuals and their loss of faith in the Enlightenment Project and the Age of Reason. In that sense, Rosenstock-Huessy would probably concur, as he seemed to place the cause for the war and the subsequent crisis squarely on the failures of Cartesian rationalism and metaphysical dualism (as revealed in his essay “Farewell to Descartes“).  H.G. Wells probably agreed in that sense, when he concluded that the war was really a testament to the failure of the intellect.

In any event, modern civilisation has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since, and so much so that a permanent discipline of “crisis management” has become the norm, along with “managerialism” and The Managerial Society.  Jean Gebser would say that this lurching from crisis to crisis is really evidence for one root crisis — the dis-integration and fragmentation of the modern consciousness structure — the mental-rational or “perspectival”.  The author William Faulkner apparently regarded it in much the same terms, and it is the very gist (as I so often mention) of W.B. Yeats’ great poem The Second Coming. Nietzsche anticipated it as his “two centuries of nihilism” — the eruption of an implicit self-negating self-contradiction within the dynamics of the modern mind itself. (Rosenstock-Huessy actually calls the modern mind, “the Greek Mind” resurrected as “Renaissance”. As mentioned earlier, Descartes was not the first to equate thinking and being in his famous formula “cogito ergo sum“. Long before Descartes, the philosopher Parmenides said “thinking and being are the same”. In that, he was opposed by his philosophical foe at the time, Heraclitus).

So, yes. We can say equally that the crisis of the Modern Era is a crisis of this resurrected “Greek Mind” which brought with it the very notions of “democracy” (Athens) or “republicanism” (Rome), and equally the same problems and temptations of empire and dictatorship (or oligarchy) which constantly shadowed and stalked democracy and republic.

“Democracy” is an ambiguous concept, but this very ambiguity is what differentiates it from an autocracy or dictatorship. The ambiguity of democracy exists as a polar tension between the individual and the mass, private and public, State and Nation, or even politics and civics.  The dynamics of democracy rely on this polarity, like the poles of a battery, between collectivisation and individuation. There is a constant tension between the two. This is in effect the dialogical situation, whereas a full autocracy or dictatorship is always monological. In a dictatorship or autocracy, one or the other pole of the dialogical is often violently suppressed — the mass or the individual, the public domain or the private life.

The crisis of democracy is the breakdown of this polarity into an absolute dualism or, as Rosenstock-Huessy put it in his essay, the radical extremes of “Ego” and “It”. The end of democracy would be the final suppression of one or the other polarity into a monological situation (the very meaning of the word “dictate”). Democracy has proved relatively resilient to date because its moods fluctuate between individual and collective action (each claiming to be the true meaning of “democracy”, nonetheless). “Polarisation” or what is called “culture war” presently, occurs when this polarity breaks apart into duality of “good and evil”. The dialogical process breaks down into a monologue, and this is called “extremism” or “ultra-“. This is exactly the situation of dis-integration and fragmentation described by Jean Gebser too, as quoted many times before in The Chrysalis,

“The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.

Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” — Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin

This is equally the problem of democracy, for every extreme calls itself “democratic” — the totalitarian states as much as the capitalist ones (which have become just as “corporatist” despite their rhetoric). Even Goebbels could claim that the Nazi Volksstaat was an ideal “democracy”.

Democracy is indeed imperiled today (and that suits some just fine, it seems). This is equally the gist of Gary Olson’s aforementioned title Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain. The “culture of narcissism” or the extremes of egoism (privatism or acquisitive individualism) belong, in effect, to the radical negation of the empathic that is the necessary basis for a public life and a public domain, and this is leading towards plutocracy or plutonomy. (Pluto was, revealingly, not only the god of riches, but also of Hell and the darkness of the underworld).

The other, but related aspect of the crisis of democracy as this dualism become self-contradiction is noted in the Freedland review of Runciman’s book, where he notes the irony of Thomas Friedman’s “China envy”, as it were. Friedman, the populariser and champion of neo-liberal ideology, expresses nonetheless envy of the Chinese autocratic model, and this is, in fact, the ironic self-contradiction in neo-liberalism itself.

The problem here (and this has been true since WWI) is that democracies are slow, and time has in effect, thanks to technology, speeded up radically since the World Wars (Toffler’s Future Shock, Heather Menzies’ Fast Forward and Out of Control). The problem faced by democracies which may not be faced by dictatorships and autocracies is the problem of “too late”. The mass is basically conservative and slow to awaken and respond to the presence of danger, and this can be very frustrating politically. This is the real problem that is only partially addressed by Freedland and Runciman in their discussion of democracy’s “complacency” or lack of vigilance. “China envy” is, in fact, impatience with democracy and democratic process owing to this complacency of the crowd. So the pressure of time, of speed, is also corrosive on democracy and its longer term prospects.

This issue of “speed” and the sense of having no time or running out of the stuff is significant. The early 20th century movement called “Futurism” was obsessed with speed and the thrill of speed. And this is of some note because the Futurists were the ideological precursors and aesthetic theoreticians of fascism.

There is, in that sense, a certain irony in noting the the very successes and innovations of modernity are also proving to be modernity’s own undoing — it’s self-negation. Democracy appears to be trapped in a dilemma. Thinking takes time. Yet, we have no time. We’ve run out of the stuff.  This also points to a structural breakdown in the mental-rational consciousness. It cannot handle the problem of time, and so is unable to master the circumstances it itself has created. Fukushima being but one case in point; climate change another. And anarcho-primitivists are as much trapped in this dilemma and dichotomy as are the technophiles they oppose.

So, the current crisis and ultimate fate of democracy —  if not the entire earth — is intimately linked to resolving the problem of time and timing — of the problem of “too late”.

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6 responses to “Democracy on the Brink: A History of Crisis since World War I”

  1. Abdulmonem says :

    It is not the crisis of the system, but it is the crisis of the operators of the system. it is a crisis of honesty, that is why the politicians do not know what the security people are doing and some people are no longer certain of the viability of the system. The dwindling of the number of the voters in election is indicative. Our crises are acting as evolutionary drivers pressuring us to innovate and transform from the the self-gratification mode of living into the manifestation mode. Ibn Arabi says that all our efforts are programmed to discover the inherent design of life that seek to be known through our many eyes, meaning God have created humanity to know him.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    It seems to me that within democratic and dictatorship camps, there are gradations of strength of each of these systems. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume there are two gradations within each system: the weak and strong monological forms within dictatorships, and the weak and strong dialogical forms within democracies.

    Strong dictatorships, then, are those where the monological form is maximally self-reliant (e.g. Germany under Hitler or the Soviet Union). Whereas, in weak dictatorships, the dictator is quite monological with respect to his subjects, but he is quite dialogical and attentive toward a master – usually from outside (e.g. Chile under Pinochet). On the other hand, in strong democracies, the dialogical character extends to all parties involved – inside or outside. Whereas, in weak democracies, the dialogical character is restricted to a smaller circle of the elite.

    I think it is here, where we can see the United States transitioning from a strong democracy – if it ever was that – to one that listens to and carries dialogue with a small circle of the elite. The more centralized this circle of the elite becomes, the more the democracy approaches a strong dictatorship – depending on the America’s capacity for self-reliance.

    So, then, in:

    “The other, but related aspect of the crisis of democracy as this dualism become self-contradiction is noted in the Freedland review of Runciman’s book, where he notes the irony of Thomas Friedman’s “China envy”, as it were. Friedman, the populariser and champion of neo-liberal ideology, expresses nonetheless envy of the Chinese autocratic model, and this is, in fact, the ironic self-contradiction in neo-liberalism itself.

    Thomas Friedman’s “China envy,” is advocating a transition from the weak democracy that the United States has become to a strong dictatorship that it is on the path of becoming – given the fact that the people’s voice is suffocated on all matters of importance (wars, economy, privacy and surveillance, entitlements, etc.).

    Theses systems that came about during modern era (capitalism, democracy, communism, etc.) have all become weak or annihilated because they suffer from a lack of connection to the source: Mother Earth (physically) and a spirit of cooperation and compassion (psychologically). Systems arisen from the modern era are all operating on the fringes of that physical and psychological necessity that would make them sustainable. Hence the great poem by W.B. Yeats: The Second Coming.

    • Scott Preston says :

      ….the weak and strong monological forms within dictatorships, and the weak and strong dialogical forms within democracies.

      That’s a very good way to put it. Of course, “town hall” democracy is part of the American myth, and probably actually existed at one time. Today, it is merely a piece of nostalgia occasionally performed or enacted merely from a sense of nostalgia or for appearances’ sake. But you can say that “strong democracy” is associated with the “town hall”, and weak democracy with new reality of mass politics. So, yes I like the way you put that.

      The expansion of technology is probably the decisive factor in the change. One American author I read noted that the “town hall” nature of democracy highlighted the largely rural, local, and agrarian nature of democracy in its original form. The growth of technology (and therefore industrialisation, urbanisation, militarisation and the ability to “project power”, etc) undermined that way of life. So that one might summarise this as “weak technology, strong democracy; strong technology, weak democracy.” So, what you have is a movement from democracy to technocracy, or what American constitutional expert Arthur Selwyn Miller called “the techno-corporate state”, and the influence of the “town hall” replaced by that of “The State”.

      So, the common denominator in considering strong dictatorship/weak democracy or strong democracy/weak dictatorship is the growth and expansion of technology, which is itself, in its essence, the organisation of power.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Strong democracy today being “merely a piece of nostalgia occasionally performed or enacted merely from a sense of nostalgia or for appearances’ sake.” is very much what I experience around me today.

        For example, where I work, a major organizational body that is supposed to represent and exercise “shared governance,” is a mere shadow of its past. Some three decades ago, this same organizational body had ousted an incompetent president. Today, the president of the organization has the stature of an emperor, and this major organizational body serves at his pleasure. As the result, the body and all of its committees and subcommittees are merely recommending – not acting – entities.

        This trend exists in the rest of the society. Formerly active and productive democratic institutions are increasingly rendered ineffective…..oh, wait….but they all still maintain a nice looking website 🙂

  3. Abdulmonem says :

    I do not want to appear antagonistic, but I am still not convinced in putting the blame on the system, on the contrary all your comments prove that the problem is with the people running the system.

    • LittleBigMan says :

      Yes, abdulmonem. I think we all agree that the problem is with the people and their psychology. To me, “a system” is just a way of referring to the product of that deficient psychology.

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