For those who speak Hungarian, a brief selection of my presentations last fall:
Two-hundred years of democratic baloney finally achieved its greatest victory. No single tyrant in the world now fails to resort to the people for support. And let there be no mistake: under certain circumstances the people have always provided such support and will continue to do so, ever more willingly. Populism and democratic despotism are not exclusive to some underdeveloped nations. All political leaders in America and Europe start learning the lesson. None of them, for example, will try to save a university from a popular government when “majorities” everywhere seem to hate everyone who is capable of articulated phonation.
Today, everyone’s talking about immigration and the threat it poses to our culture. Much less they speak of the damage done by our own people: what Walter Rathenau called “the vertical invasion of the barbarians.” It is, actually, more than a threat, it is a fait accompli. I don’t see the “culture” we’re trying to defend. Like Thiemann in Hanns Johst’s Schlageter, “When I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning!”
Yes, the friends of Johst killed Ratheneau, but nothing like that is likely to happen here. Today’s barbarians are numerous enough to kill the spirit before the flesh.
Yesterday’s experience once again convinced me that democracy is indeed an “all-embracing idol concept.” If one member from the audience can maintain that democracy means “deliberation” (and therefore majority decision is the death of democracy), while another thinks that democracy means the involvement of the “greatest possible number” of voters in decision-making (whatever that means), I really start to wonder whether the word means anything at all.
Yesterday, I had a wonderful experience at a national conference of history teachers. It actually helped me to clarify my own position, and explain to others why speaking too much of democracy might become dangerous.
What is the problem with speaking too much of democracy?
It is a commonplace in recent political science literature that democracy is “backsliding” in the world. But this is misleading. The truth is that in the 1990’s the number of liberal democracies seemed to be steadily growing, while today, all other sorts of democracy seem to be winning the day. Non-liberal democracies are not backslides, but an entirely different, and – for that matter – more genuine type of democracy. That some countries with universal suffrage, a multi-party system, and free elections are becoming increasingly monolithic and tyrannical, is not a derailment of democracy, but democracy in its prime: where election results and opinion polls legitimize leaders to an extent that is unrivaled in more liberal ones. If we insist too much on “democracy” or the “will of the people” (which is in fact always the will of an artificially construed majority), we will soon have to give up our moral objections in favor of a mathematical concept.
Does it mean that the word “democracy” should be abandoned?
Not necessarily. The democratic element is an integral part of all modern political governments. It would be better, however, if we realized that the best form of government was what the Middle Ages called a “mixed government” (regimen mixtum). Popular participation is an important, but only ONE important element in governance. The rule of law, the separation of powers, the system of checks and balances are equally important. If you don’t like the medieval word of “mixed government,” you can also call it a “republic.” Kant or the framers of the American Constitution never called their system “democratic,” only “republican.”
So what follows from that in a practical sense?
What follows is that we should concentrate more on concepts like the rule of law, on the legal and moral constraints of power, on institutional checks and balances, or political culture and tradition; not only on the hypnotic word of “democracy.” Democracy can be just as oppressive as any other political regime. There have been enough great political thinkers from Plato to Tocqueville to teach us just that much.
My whole discussion of majority tyranny boils down to the fact that there is no such thing. Tyranny there is, and majority is a very good thing to justify tyranny; but majorities always have to be construed before they can justify anything. Construction is a work for expert minorities who seem to get better and better in this demanding task nowadays.
It seems that the same goes for democracy. There are so many democracies available at the political marketplace that any minority (don’t let us forget that in a complex modern society there are only minorities) is able to choose that single type which fits its purposes. Majoritarians will call liberal democracies anti-democratic, liberals will call majoritarian democracies dictatorial. Direct democrats will call representation non-democratic, while d’Argenson had the guts already in the 18th century to call direct democracy a “false” one.
When the same regime may be called a dictatorship, an illiberal democracy, a hybrid system, a hacked democracy, or a constitutional autocracy, you start to wonder whether any of these terms mean anything any more. Democracy being the most popular, its problems are the most vexing. I am even inclined to get rid of the word once and for all. Why do we need a word that never meant what its etymology suggested, anyway?
(An excerpt from the Introduction)
Both ‘majority’ and ‘tyranny’ have multiple meanings. ‘Majority’ may refer to the majority of society as a whole; to the majority of individuals possessing political rights; the majority of those actually voting; and in modern representative systems to the prevailing majority of legislative and executive bodies elected by the political community. The four meanings of majority are trivially non-identical, and even a large part of today’s democracies apply the terms ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ to entirely different proportions. Mainly, though not exclusively, because of disproportional representation.
Speaking of proportions: majority is also a word with multiple meanings because it can signify a relative majority (forty percent of a given society, community, or representative body against the thirty-five and the twenty-five percent); or an absolute majority (fifty percent plus one person); not to mention the different cases of qualified majority (the most widely known being the mythical ‘two-third,’ but in the course of history, a whole range of other proportions had been adopted as well). Although it would seem comfortable to avoid such hair-splitting by limiting the use of the word to the part exceeding fifty percent, it should not be forgotten that the main objective of disproportional representation has always been to transform relative majorities into more manageable absolute ones; while the idea behind qualified majorities has been that only these express a ‘real’ (sober, trustworthy, enduring) majority, and not any simple, barely achieved, momentary one.
All of which, however, do not exhaust all interpretations, especially in the case of qualified majorities. It may be asked, for instance, whether it is sufficient that a however large majority should prevail at a given time only, or the larger part of consecutive decision-makers is also required to establish a well-founded majority. The idea may seem esoteric at first sight, but historical and current examples in the case of constitutional changes in various countries do rely on a similar principle.
All of the above, however, still define the majority as it is most easily constructed by voting procedures or opinion polls, and say little about the ontological status of the majority as such. To give an essential, philosophical definition of what constitutes a majority, and especially ‘the’ majority of society or ‘the’ people (if not the number of votes cast by individuals on particular and highly different issues) does not only seem esoteric, but usually is. Yet, while the Rousseauian concept of the ‘general will’ (which normally, but not necessarily coincides with the empirical will of the majority), populist slogans about the ‘silent majority,’ or expressions like the ‘moral majority’ are difficult to grasp analytically, it would be a mistake to dismiss them, since it is exactly these formulas which make it possible for political actors to posit themselves not as anti-democratic, but as advocates of an alternative, more substantial sort of democracy.
Before, however, one should quickly assume that such formulas are nothing but an abuse of words, justifying the power of flesh and blood minorities in the name of imaginary majorities, let us add that a very non-populist author like Tocqueville referred in a no less opaque way to a largely hypothetical majority. When the argument against majority tyranny in Democracy in America appealed “from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of the human race” (2010: 410), it was unclear whether it was to abandon the idea of majority rule in general, or – in a highly unfortunate, and in Tocqueville’s time almost incomprehensible way – to subject one majority, that of a particular society, to another, even more omnipotent and even less visible one. We may return to this apparent contradiction later, but for the present discussion it is sufficient to observe that the term ‘majority’ has two further meanings in the sense that it may refer either to the majority in a given state or to the majority of ‘the world;’ while in the latter case, it may once again be asked whether we speak of the majority of states, or the majority of the states’ population, since a united human race is, as of yet, no less a fiction than a united nation. In our own time, the declarations of the UN, accepted sometimes by unanimous, at other times by majority vote, or the universal principles drafted by its officials, which supposedly express the consensus of humanity or at least the opinion of its majority, bear a more uncomfortable resemblance to Rousseau’s ‘general will’ than it is usually recognized.
The concept of the majority is thus a highly complex one, and tyranny can also be understood in at least three different ways. The traditional definition, which goes back to Aristotle and has remained influential throughout the Middle Ages, states that tyranny is an unjust government which serves the good of one person, and not ‘the good of the community subject to him’ (Aquinas 2002: 8), or, in other words, ‘the common good.’ The concept of the common good is no doubt vague in itself, but for the time being it suffices to say that it is a both material and moral good, and certainly not the sum total of individual goods, let alone the good of the majority, the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as a utilitarian approach would suggest. What the definition does not imply is that tyranny is unjust because it is the rule of one person, as the current use of the word sometimes hypnotically suggests; in the classical approach, the rule of one person may also be just, since justice is not a function of popular participation, but of the intentions of the ruler and the outcomes of governance. (One might also say that the modern formula of ‘government by the people’ plays no part in the definition, only that of ‘government for the people;’ although very few contemporary communitarians would follow Aristotle or Aquinas up to this point.)
The concept of justice can be derived from other sources than that of the communitarian common good, of course, the most prominent being the liberal concept of individual rights. Most modern definitions of tyranny take the infringement of ‘natural’ or ‘human’ rights as a criterion: as was the case in the debates on the American Constitution – see Robert Dahl’s reconstruction of Madison’s argument in his A Preface to Democratic Theory (2006: 7) – and the same self-evident formulas are often found in modern textbooks. The definition of ‘rights’ is no doubt problematic in itself: most authors agree that it was hardly determined with any precision which rights counted as ‘natural’ ones in the American context of the late eighteenth century; nor is it clearly established today which rights are ‘universal,’ a fact most prominently illustrated by the conflict between the more narrowly understood ‘basic rights’ of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or The Law of Peoples, and the ever expanding set of human rights in the documents of the United Nations. Or, to take one step further, should rights be so broadly defined as the ‘right of every individual to do as she pleases,’ the consequences would be obviously anarchic, since the essence of government consists in the very fact of preventing at least some individuals from exercising this right, thereby making every form of government tyrannical. (Let us note that not everyone refrains from the anarchic outcome. Robert Paul Wolff’s classic In Defense of Anarchism (1970) quite logically deduced the rejection of all forms of political government from the Kantian notion of autonomy; while the alleged absurdity of the conclusion had led others formerly to reject the premise, along with its grounding in natural or human rights, as it was done by early conservatives in the wake of the French Revolution. A more sophisticated form of the latter’s argument can be found in such twentieth-century communitarian works as Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which famously called the belief in human rights the modern day equivalent of ancient superstitions about witches and unicorns (2007: 69-70).
Regardless of how one defines rights, however, or whether such a definition is possible at all, the second concept of tyranny is obviously different from the first, and the third one, although often mentioned together with the second, also differs from it. This third definition equates tyranny with non-divided power, or power without any external constraints. While the connection between the potential infringement of rights and the uncontrolled exercise of power seems intuitively convincing and perhaps empirically verifiable (for which both Madison and Tocqueville offered examples), in a theoretical sense they can only be connected on the basis of a more fundamental anthropological supposition, nurtured by the Hobbesian view that lust for power is an elementary feature of human nature: it has no intrinsic limitations, and can therefore be restrained only by the similar ambitions of others. All this, however, will not make the two definitions (tyranny as the infringement of rights and tyranny as unrestricted power) identical, only interrelated; or, in a slightly different wording, the concept of tyranny will never be interchangeable with the modern concept of dictatorship.
The expression ‘majority tyranny’ has therefore as many possible meanings as the various interpretations of its elements allow for. It may refer to the power of society as a whole, its political community, its active voters, or its elected bodies, exercised by a relative, absolute, or qualified majority, either in a synchronic or in a diachronic way, empirically or hypothetically, domestically or internationally, in opposition to the common good, violating individual rights, or without checks and balances. This amounts for at least 288 combinations, and, although some of those clearly belong to the world of oddities, there remains enough to make it impossible to point out one as the sole true form of majority tyranny.
When liberals face something they don’t like they’ll most likely call it undemocratic or dictatorial. The supposition that the two are synonymous is, of course, a complete misunderstanding. If democracy means legitimization by the people, then most dictators throughout history have been stout democrats. The one thing Hitler was not was an aristocrat, and the same goes to Stalin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung, or Chávez, not to mention some more recent hillbillies. All those people led mass movements, workers’ parties, people’s republics, and the like, and this was not simply a play with words, but a conscious rejection of all elitism. What is more, they all seem to have been convinced that they were expressing the will of the people, and they were supported by them; which could in most cases even be true. After all, with some persuasion and promises a sufficient number of citizens may always be convinced to support anyone. “Sufficient” is a decidedly vague word here, for it refers to the fact that in democratic thought, it is never precisely determined how many citizens will actually “represent” the whole. As we have seen last month, not even the majority of the voters – not to mention the whole adult population – is needed in order to justify a democratic government. And before I am, too, called an elitist, let me remind you that practically all critics of today’s democracies (leftists not excluded) acknowledge that in today’s informational chaos more people may be misled than any time before in history. All this is not to say that there are no different levels of oppression, or that Nazi Germany was as democratic as today’s FGR. In some ways, it was more democratic. In some ways, it was less. But to criticize a country for not being democratic, and then for being an illiberal democracy only shows how confused the whole use of the term is. (See for example: Hungary is no longer a democracy.) Why not say “unfree”, “unjust”, “unlawful”, or even simply “bad”? Why stick to the awkward term of “democracy” used by so many dictators from the German Democratic Republic to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? Who may well have been right in implying that democracy was just a subspecies of dictatorships?
“We are the people, we are the majority!” – one of the slogans recited by anti-government demonstrators last Saturday only confirms how arbitrary the concept of majority is. Or, more precisely, how every majority is a construction, a fact aptly shown by the recent issue of Heti Válasz. The table below shows how the same proportion of voters would have produced entirely different results in different electoral systems.
The perhaps most interesting fact is that no procedure on the list would have reflected that more than 50 percent of the voters wanted the government to leave. (It is quite obvious regarding the present friend/foe division in Hungary that everyone not voting for the government voted decidedly against it.) On the other hand, it is also dubious whether 100,000 people in the streets do represent this majority. (Which is also a relative one, btw, compared to the entire adult population.)
Needless to say, the first half of the sentence is even more dubious. “We are the people” (because we are the majority) is exactly what everyone should avoid saying when talking politics. The original sin of democracy (from ancient Greece up to the present day) is the almost imperceptible semantic shift from “the rule of the people” to the “rule of the majority” and then to “rule of those claiming to be the majority.” As Vilfredo Pareto once put it:
“We must not be led astray by the term ‘people’, which seems to designate a concrete thing. Of course the sum of the inhabitants of a country might be called a ‘people’, and a ‘people’ in such a case is a real, concrete thing. But only in virtue of an abstraction wholly foreign to reality can such an aggregate be regarded as a person possessing a will and the power to express it. (…) Why should those who did not [approve a certain measure] be privileged to call themselves ‘the people’? Were not those who approved just as much a part of ‘the people’? The usual answer in such cases is that the term ‘people’ means ‘the majority’. But in that case, to be exact, the antithesis to divine right would be not ‘the right of the people’ but ‘majority right’. (…) No one knows, oftentimes, what exactly the majority wants. A solution of the problem is more or less approximated in countries that have the referendum. But even in those countries very considerable numbers fail to vote, and it is only by a legal fiction that the will expressed by the voters – granted that they all have understood the question that had been put to them – is taken as the will of the majority. In countries where there is no referendum, the will of a small number of individuals is taken as equivalent to the ‘will of the people’ only by a complicated series of abstractions, fictions, inferences.” (Vilfredo Pareto: The Mind and Society. Volume Three: Theory of Derivations. London: Jonathan Cape, 1935, pp. 972-973)
On a more personal level, I’m happy to see how such a weird ontological question is slowly becoming to worry large crowds of people nowadays.
Yesterday’s election in Hungary is once again a classic example of how elastic the concept of majority is. If you read headlines only, the ruling party won an overwhelming victory, a two-third supermajority, and the like. Looking at the number of voters, however, it is half of the 70 percent who cared to vote. Meaning 35 percent of the (adult) population, with 35 percent who voted against it, and 30 percent being indifferent or having no one to vote for. Yet let there be no doubt that it will be presented as the “will of the people.” As it always is.
The situation is even more complicated if we descend to details. The majority of those living in the capital voted against the government. The majority of young people presumably voted against the government. And vice versa, of course. No one will say that old people shouldn’t have the same right to choose their leaders as young people do. But the cleavage is there. Remember Brexit. The biggest problem with all sorts of majoritarianism is precisely this: that it turns the many groups of society into two, then names one of those ‘the people.’
Whose tyranny, what majority?
This is one of the messages I put forward in my recent book. In a way, its title is somewhat misleading. In fact, The Tyranny of the Majority is not about the tyranny of the majority. More precisely, it is about the real tyranny of imaginary (or, at best, artificial) majorities. As this case shows, even this 35 percent non-majority was fairly difficult to create. It needed eight years of efforts by a political elite. Which is, to be sure, what political elites always do. Build homogeneous camps of supporters out of otherwise excitingly different human beings. This is one of the lessons still to be learned from the great theorists of majority rule:
“When we say that the voters ‘choose’ their representative, we are using a language that is very inexact. The truth is that the representative has himself elected by the voters, and, if that phrase should seem too inflexible and too harsh to fit some cases, we might qualify it by saying that his friends have him elected.”
(Gaetano Mosca: The Ruling Class. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939, p. 154.)
It’s funny how in a democratic age everyone is in the majority. I still remember the ad after our last national consultation which claimed that a 99% majority of the people supported the government. (The Hungarian version of “We Are The 99%.”) Now an opposition movement campaigns against the same government with the slogan “The Force Of The Majority.” In times like this, being MORE is evidently a seduction impossible to resist.