Can Liberal Democracy Survive Liberal Democracy?

In 1534, the English Parliament passed a monumentally historic piece of legislation known as the Act of Supremacy which designated King Henry VIII, as well as his successors, as the Supreme Head of the Church of England. This event in conjunction with the Statute in Restraint of Appeals which was passed the prior year, set into motion the English Reformation by completely severing Roman Papal authority in English affairs and enabled Henry to begin the legislative process of dismantling the residual Roman Catholic institutions in England (sometimes rather violently), now known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Not only did the Dissolution leave the English countryside with the smoldering ruins of ancient monasteries, it left a void in hundreds of communities for which they were the focal point of intellectual and spiritual life as well as providers healthcare and alms to the poor and destitute. Although England was plagued with beggars prior to the Dissolution, the abrupt absence of any institution to provide these services exacerbated poverty and social instability which would become the impetus for the Elizabethan Poor Laws which are considered to be the precursor to the modern British welfare state. This paradigm shift in social organization, from Gemeinschaft (community) to Gesellschaft (society) would be but one of many historic events in which the functions of civil society are absorbed by a centralized state; where the voluntary, civic associations of the community are replaced by the impersonal, transactional bureaucratic apparatus of the state.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville remarks how in contrast to aristocratic European societies, popular government levels social classes as it tends to promote egalitarian individualism thereby disengaging man from common civic life. This atomization, according to Tocqueville, creates the conditions for democratic despotism to take root in American society in which the centralized State expands “till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

It’s clear Tocqueville prophetically foresaw American democracy’s potential to collapse into what we refer to as the welfare state where the centralized State increasingly diminishes the roles and functions of the institutions of civil society. This is but one manifestation of a greater trend in the trajectory of State expansion in 20th century America in which power is increasingly concentrated in the State which eclipses state and local governments, the “laboratories of democracy,” wherein communities govern their own day to day affairs as opposed to unelected bureaucrats, intellectuals and “experts” imposing their (100% Cathedral approved) conception of a “good society.”

Robert Nisbet too, feared the dual emergence of the atomized individual and Leviathan as he saw the totalitarian ideological movements of the 20th century given teeth by modern, secular man longing to belong to a new kind of community, the political community unified in the State. As monarchies crumbled and communities collapsed under the weight of democracy, fascism and communism offered a hand of salvation to the alienated individual, haunted by the “spectre of insecurity,” by promising to alleviate the quest for community which “will not be denied, for it springs from some of the most powerful needs of human nature-needs for a clear sense of cultural purpose, membership, status, and continuity.”

In Nisbets view, the mad architect of 20th century totalitarianism was none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau who asserted that “Men are born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Rousseau sought to emancipate individuals from the traditional associations of civil society such as the aristocracy, church and family; which in his view, along with private property, were the root of inequality among men. To free man from the chains of society and restore the equity which characterized mans relation to one another in Rousseau’s romantic conception of the state of nature, man must be freed from each other. He writes

Each citizen would then be completely independent of all his fellow men, and absolutely dependent upon the state: which operation is always brought by the same means; for it is only by the force of the state that the liberty of its members can be secured.

Rousseau’s social contract requires the individual to subordinate their rights to the sovereign authority of the General Will which is not simply the will of the majority, it is the will of the political community as a whole, aimed at the common good. Since the General Will represents the collective will of society it is always right by definition and individuals who resist it are acting contrary to their own best interest and therefore must be “forced to be free.” Freedom then is defined as the absolute obedience to the General Will and civic associations which make men unequal and consequently unfree, are incompatible with the General Will and must therefore be abolished. “It is therefore essential, if the General Will is to be able to express itself, that there should be no partial society within the state, and that each citizen should think only his own thoughts.” In coating the absolute submission of the individual and civil society to the State with the sweet, sugary language of “freedom,” Rousseau laid the foundation, trimmed the bushes and furnished the house that Leviathan came to call home in the 20th century. Nisbet concludes:

The individual renounces the social loyalties of traditional society, surrenders to the state the rights of association which are the fundament of religion, family, and community, and by so doing becomes free for the first time. Herein lies the lure of Rousseau’s philosophy for absolutists and here too is the essence of the confusion of freedom and authority that underlies contemporary totalitarian philosophies.

What recourse then, does the modern man have against an ever encroaching Leviathan? For Tocqueville the answer lay in what he called the “art of association” or American proclivity for civic engagement. The aristocracy of the Ancien Régime, according to Tocqueville, placed a check on the power of the crown. However, America lacked such an institution due to the shallowness of its roots and democracy’s egalitarian nature therefore the institutions of civil society, what Nisbet calls intermediate associations, perform the function of acting as a buffer between the individual and the State and counteract democracy’s propensity for individualism. The erosion of these intermediate associations by the market economy or by the State itself, would necessarily result in rapid expansion of the State and its role in the everyday lives of its citizens as we have seen with the New Deal in America. Active civic engagement is thus vital for a healthy democracy as it fosters a sense of civic responsibility and “public-spiritednesss”; Tocqueville viewed the local democratic process as the beating heart of democracy in America.

Civic engagement builds social capital. It encourages us to leave the self-interested bubble of our modern existence to come together and direct our energies towards a common goal even if it is something as small as filling a neighborhood pothole the city never seems to get around to fixing (true story). It teaches us the civic virtues of personal responsibility, trust, loyalty and duty which “… isolated from communal life are hopeless abstractions” according to John Dewey. I suspect Tocqueville viewed the democratic eclipse of civil society as a historic (and tragic) inevitability:

The more government takes the place of associations, the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help. That is a vicious circle of cause and effect. Administrative centralization only serves to enervate the peoples that submit to it, because it constantly tends to diminish their civic spirit.

Furthermore, the non-democratic structure of civil institutions further acts as a bulwark against “the vice of democracy” which according to Tocqueville and Mencius Moldbug, is its tendency to prey upon itself. The progressive temptation to extend the principles of democracy to the intermediate associations of family and church only hasten their ongoing decay. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as Moldbug points out, the word democracy carries with it a double valence as it is synonymous with “good” ”and produces “deep in your medulla, warmth glows from everything democratic” and therefore anything anti-democratic is deemed “bad.” It’s rather silly but we must ask ourselves: would the democratization of the nuclear family or the classroom result in more stable homes or learning environments? Is the hierarchical and authoritarian structure of these institutions deleterious towards these ends?

Its curious that in the dissection of the liberal-democratic body, we find the organs, joints and muscles-the institutions of civil society, to be intrinsically non-democratic. The non-democratic composition of liberal democracy is the very force that keeps the leash around Leviathans neck; who if given the chance would remake the world in its egalitarian, individualistic image and undermine the very institutions that make it possible in the first place. Liberal democracy is living on borrowed time, on the borrowed cultural capital of not only pre-democratic institutions but forms of social organization as old as mankind itself which according to Nisbet “cannot be regarded as the external products of man’s thought and behavior; they are essentially prior to the individual and are the indispensable supports of belief and conduct.” Yet it is these institutions that liberal democracy undermines and in its hubris and arrogance, it devours civil society and in doing so, devours its own tail.

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Christopher Grant

6 thoughts on “Can Liberal Democracy Survive Liberal Democracy?

  1. Very nice piece here, high-quality stuff. The real question for many is whether or not the American Ideal of “Freedom” inevitably leads to this cannibalistic and self-defeating outcome. Whether a virtuous American Republic is possible, or whether it was destined to end up this way from the get go. I would hold that it is inevitable, there seems to be a kind of historic “necessity” within the American imagination which predisposes it to seek the dissolution of any impediment to maximal individual freedom.

    1. Thank you. I am certainly in agreement with regards to the decline of the American republic as a historic inevitability. In fact, in my article Ex Falso Quodlibet, I argue that the very philosophical underpinnings of the Constitution (natural rights, individual liberty, etc) made inevitable the trajectory of modern progressivism, culminating in the complete emancipation of the individual from all external constraints. Gregory Hood said it best when he mournfully noted “…America—the land that progressed straight to decadence, without an interval of civilization.”

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