Rethinking Democracy: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy
By F. Roger Devlin
Alain de Benoist
The Problem of Democracy
Arktos Media, 2011
This deceptively brief study of democracy begins from the familiar point that the term can no longer mean much in an age when all regimes claim to be democratic. Benoist suggests that the serious inquirer should turn to history and study democracy as it has actually existed, long before the modern era. One pattern which quickly becomes clear is the intimate connection between democracy and Western civilization:
In contrast to the Orient, absolute despotism has always been exceedingly rare in Europe. Whether in Rome, in the Iliad, in Vedic India or among the Hittites, already at an early date we find the existence of popular assemblies for both military and civil administration.
This does not mean that most Western polities have been democracies; they have most often been mixed regimes containing democratic elements. Yet even such elements have generally been absent in the non-Western world, where the very word for democracy is a recent import from the European languages.
More specifically, democracy was a system of government which developed in Greece during classical times. Benoist next seeks to rediscover what demokrateia meant to the men who invented it. His discussion then evolves toward a defense of this ancient conception and a corresponding critique of modern “democracies.”
The cardinal point to grasp is that the classical understanding presupposed “a relatively homogeneous community conscious of what makes it such,” or “cultural cohesion and a clear sense of shared belonging.”
The closer the members of a community are to one another, the more likely they are to have common sentiments, identical values, and the same way of viewing the world and social ties, and the easier it is for them to make collective decisions concerning the common good without the need for any form of mediation.
The citizens of a Greek polis shared a common descent, common history, common language and common form of worship. It is a moot point what demokrateia would have been in the absence of one or more of them.
Such a regime was distinguished from oligarchy or tyranny by three forms of civic equality: isonomy, or equality before the law; isotimy, or equal eligibility for public office; and isegory, or equal freedom to address one’s fellow citizens on matters of public concern. Civic equality has nothing to do with natural equality, and has no meaning outside men’s relationship to the political community of which they are members.
Athens is the only ancient democracy of which we have considerable knowledge. We know enough of Sparta and Rome to draw useful comparisons, but these states were mixed regimes with only certain democratic aspects.
Benoist’s too-brief historical review passes hastily over the Solonian reforms, although these certainly had a democratic tendency. In earlier times, power had been monopolized by the Eupatridai (the ‘well-fathered’), an aristocracy typically holding large estates and breeding horses amid the rich bottomland of Attica. By the early sixth century BC, this class had reduced many of the smallholders of the hill country to debt-slavery. Receiving a commission to reform the laws so as to restore civil concord, Solon abolished debt-slavery and cancelled existing debts. This measure was called the seisachtheia, or shaking off of burdens. He also admitted the newly-free class of Yeomen farmers (Zeugetai, or yokefellows) to participation in the Assembly. For these reasons, Solon was often called the father of Athenian democracy. But the poorer, generally landless men known as Thetes continued to be excluded from politics.
Benoist dates Athenian Democracy to the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508 BC. Previous to that time, Athenian society consisted of four phylai, or tribes, which were subdivided into phratria (brotherhoods) and genē (clans). Athenian citizen rolls were based upon membership in phratria. Not surprisingly, civic loyalty to Athens often had to give way to the claims of kinship. This contributed to the establishment of a tyranny by the Peisistratid family while Solon was still alive.
After helping to overthrow the Peisistratids, Cleisthenes instituted a new system of enrolling citizens by place of residence, or deme, regardless of clan or tribe. The four tribes, indeed, were abolished and replaced with ten new groupings. Although still called phylai, they were henceforth composed of demes rather than families. Cleisthenes’ great object was to substitute specifically political or civic bonds for kinship bonds.
Each of the ten new ‘tribes’ was composed of three groups of demes, or districts: one from the plains, one from the hill country and one from the coast. The old eupatrid aristocracy was concentrated in the plains, the independent smallholders in the hills, and the coastal regions were mixed. So the reorganization forced not only different families but also different social classes to work together, forestalling the development of political factions around class interests. Cleisthenes called his system isonomia, or equality before the law, but it gradually became known as demokrateia. This term may originally have signified ‘rule by the demes’ as much as ‘rule by the people’ (the demos).
Forty-six years later a third and final major round of democratic reforms was carried out under the leadership of Ephialtes. Up to this time, much influence had been exerted by the Areopagus, a council of former office-holders somewhat analogous to the Roman Senate. The Areopagus had remained a stronghold of eupatrid power. Ephialtes transferred all its political prerogatives to the popular Assembly, leaving it a mere court with jurisdiction over murder and certain other capital crimes. He also opened participation in the Assembly to the Thetes. The resulting regime is often referred to as the radical democracy.
Ephialtes himself was assassinated by an aristocratic opponent within a year of carrying through his reforms, but they were consolidated by his successor Pericles. Within about fifteen years, the city’s aristocratic faction had virtually fallen apart. Athens continued to be governed democratically for over a hundred years, with two brief interruptions, until the Macedonian conquest of 338 BC. The popular assembly passed laws, made war and peace, appointed officials, and sometimes exercised judicial functions.
In 451 BC, ten years after the death of Ephialtes, a law was passed restricting Athenian citizenship to men born of an Athenian father and an Athenian mother. This restriction upon the number of citizens eligible to participate in Athenian politics may strike the modern reader as a quintessentially undemocratic measure, but it was seen by contemporaries as a natural consequence of democracy itself: the extension of political rights to ever-broader classes of the population seemed to them to call for a corresponding tightening of civic membership requirements.
The Athenians liked to consider themselves autochthonous: the original inhabitants of Attica, unmixed with foreign blood. As Athens prospered, however, it attracted merchants from all over Greece and beyond. Foreign traders and their families became known as metoikoi, or dwellers-with, and came to form a large fraction of the resident population. Mixed marriages began to occur: a resident Thracian fathered the Athenian historian Thucydides. Such foreigners could own property and enjoyed civil rights such as use of the court system, but they had no political rights of any kind.
According to the notions currently approved for our use, such exclusion was a violation of these foreigners’ “human rights” and the most unconscionable “racism.” Yet there is no evidence that they ever protested their situation. Clearly, they felt that the advantages of living in Athens outweighed the loss of any political participation they might have enjoyed back home. If there were any malcontents among them, they were sent packing by the Athenians too quickly to leave traces in the historical record.
What is known of the ethnography and constitution of the Spartan state also confirms Benoist’s assertion of the intimate connection between democracy and racial and social homogeneity. The Spartans never claimed to be autochthonous; they considered themselves pure “Dorians” whose ancestors had led a wandering life before settling in as the masters of Laconia. The earlier, non-Dorian natives of that land were reduced, if they were lucky, to the status of perioikoi, or “dwellers-around,” with no political rights. If they were less lucky, they became helots, or slaves of the Spartan state. The Spartans lived in continual fear of vengeful uprisings from this numerically superior slave class, and dealt harshly with it. Spartans never intermarried with the despised natives of Laconia, whether perioikoi or helots.
The ancients considered the Spartan constitution a model “mixed” regime compounded of monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements: it combined a dual kingship with a council of elders and a popular assembly which had to approve all legislation. Yet it is important to stress that this constitution applied only to full Spartan citizens, who formed a small minority of the total population living in Spartan-controlled territory. Considering that territory as a whole, the regime must be seen as an extremely narrow aristocracy.
Clearly, the Spartans considered their political regime essentially bound up with membership in a single clan sharing a common ancestry. Chalk up two for Benoist.
The case of Rome seems less favorable to the author’s thesis. Romans preserved the surprisingly unflattering tradition that Romulus originally populated his city by offering asylum to runaway slaves, criminals and sundry other outcasts and from the surrounding area. These being mostly men, the city only survived beyond the first generation by kidnapping women from the nearby Sabines. Two of Rome’s seven semi-legendary kings are said to have been of Etruscan origin; the Etruscans spoke a non-Indo-European language and may have originated in Anatolia.
In its early days, Rome quarreled with the independent Latin cities as much as anyone. At no point in its development was the city ever the capitol of a compact, homogeneous, ethnically-based Latin nation-state; the historical record resisted the stoutest efforts of Nineteenth Century historians, influenced by the romantic nationalism of their day, to foist such an interpretation upon it.
More important, perhaps, is the generosity with which Rome extended citizenship to subjects of proven loyalty. This was considered unusual at the time, yet it was among the most important tools of Roman policy. Potentially rebellious conquered peoples were mollified with limited civic rights and, crucially, the possibility of gaining further rights and status over time. It was a program of Romanization, and proved notably effective, yet it involved a major break with the ancient communitarian nature of politics.
Despite this liberality in extending citizenship, the Roman Republic simultaneously granted increasing powers to their popular council, the concilium plebis; in other words, it gradually became more democratic. A deeper study of the democratic component of the Roman constitution than we can undertake here might provide some modifications to Benoist’s thesis concerning ancient democracy and bio-cultural homogeneity, which he bases mainly on the case of Athens.
Of course, nothing in the Roman experience indicates the feasibility of democratic rule in a polity compounded of different “continental population groups.”
Democracy, Equality, and Freedom
Besides dependence on a pre-existing folk community, ancient democracy differed from modern liberal democracy in its concept of equality, which was in no way opposed to hierarchy or authority. “All ancient authors who have extolled democracy have praised it not because it is an intrinsically egalitarian regime but because it . . . enables a better selection of the elite.”
Elections (from the Latin eligere, ‘to choose’) are a form of selection; the very word ‘elite’ has the same etymology. Originally, democracy expressed a will to replace privilege with merit at a time when the former no longer appeared to be the logical consequence of the latter. The aim was to substitute skill for chance factors (especially birth). It is not elites which it is opposed to. . . . What regime, after all, does not seek quality in government? If democracy charmed so many spirits, this is partly because it was seen as the best means for organising elite turnover.
An equality derived from inherited membership is surely comprehensible to us, even if less familiar than leftist leveling. Surely freedom, however, depends upon circumstance and cannot be conceived as an inherited status? Yet for the ancients, it was so:
In Greek, just as in Latin, liberty stems from one’s origin. Freeman, *(e)leuderos (Greek eleutheros), is primarily he who belongs to a certain stock (cf. the Latin word liberi, children). ‘To be born of good stock is to be free,’ Emile Benveniste writes, ‘it comes to the same thing.’ The Indo-European root *leudh-, also served to designate people as belonging to a given folk (cf. the Old Slavonic ljudú, ‘folk’ and German Leute, ‘people’). These terms all derive from a root evoking the idea of ‘growth and development.’
Common Objections to Democracy
In his second chapter, Benoist attempts to defend democracy in its original understanding from a number of common criticisms: it is unstable, with constant factional fighting amounting to a latent state of civil war; it is vulnerable to the appeals of special interests; a thousand fools do not add up to one wise man; its derivation of authority from numbers is a non-sequitur; it consecrates the reign of mediocrity, etc.
Concerning the problems of factionalism and special interests, the author adds nothing to his previously stated position that democracy presupposes homogeneity and may not be practicable in its absence. About Scandinavia, for example, he writes:
[T]his democratic tradition rests on a particularly strong communitarian sentiment—a tendency toward Zusammenleben (‘living together’) which leads people to take account of common interests above all else. . . . This tradition [is] founded on mutual assistance and a feeling of shared responsibility.
It may simply not be possible to practice democracy in the absence of “a particularly strong communitarian sentiment.”
Regarding the ignorance and incompetence of the common people, the author borrows a point from Weber’s Politik als Beruf: “In politics, decision-making does not mean choosing between what is true and what is false; rather, it means choosing between possible [practical] options.” He remarks that if truth were the determinant of political action, no choice would be involved, whereas politics is precisely an art of making choices.
The idea that government should be in the hands of ‘knowers’ stretches back at least to Plato’s Republic. For Plato, however, knowledge preeminently means knowledge of ‘the Good’—the supreme value and telos of human action. For the utopian philosopher-king capable of such knowledge, political decision-making would indeed be reduced to a kind of calculation.
Rightly or wrongly, few of our contemporaries believe in the possibility of any knowledge of ‘the Good’; for them, ‘knowers’ are merely specialists and technicians. Such men understand how to adopt means to a given end, but almost by definition lack the breadth of vision necessary for prudently choosing between ends. For this reason, political rule by technical experts often proves disastrous.
Yet Benoist is surprisingly optimistic about the capacity of properly informed ordinary people for making decisions regarding their own welfare:
The vast majority of citizens today—especially when they have a clear awareness of their shared belonging—are perfectly capable, if given the means to make a real choice (without being misled by propaganda and demagogy), of identifying the political acts most suited to the common good.
The author affirms the reality of the Volksgeist, the spirit of a particular people expressed in its history and institutions. He describes this spirit as a “shared vision” or “collective representations of a desirable socio-political order” which “presents each person with imperatives transcending particular rivalries.” The national or folk-consciousness is the fundamental source of any regime’s legitimacy, transcending any law or constitution. One understands why Benoist has met with incomprehension on the part of Anglophone political science, with its lingering positivist sources of inspiration.
Problems of Popular Sovereignty
In his third chapter, Benoist develops two inherent difficulties involved in popular sovereignty. The first concerns the possibility of unjust and tyrannical action on the part of the demos. “The underlying characteristic of popular sovereignty,” he writes, “is that in principle there is nothing to limit it.” This would render meaningless the distinction between a democracy under the rule of law and an ochlochracy, or rule by a lawless mob. If law is sovereign, the people are not: hence there is no democracy. The author discusses but does not offer any solution to this dilemma, which may simply be inherent in the nature of popular rule.
The second difficulty concerns both the need for pluralism and its necessary limits. On the first point, Benoist emphasizes that majority voting should be seen as a mere technique for decision-making, not as a source of authority or truth. The foundation of democratic legitimacy is not majoritarianism but the appointment of leaders by those governed.
Where the majority is invested with the moral authority of the demos as a whole, as Lenin and Robespierre envisioned, the opposition is left with no rights. Under these conditions, the majority becomes permanent—and this means precisely the end of democracy. A political opposition has, therefore, been described by one liberal theorist as “an organ of popular sovereignty as essential as government.”
Benoist, however, considers this position less than satisfactory: “there is a great risk that as it gradually extends, ‘pluralism’ may dissolve the notion of [a] people, which is the very basis of democracy.” Overgenerous immigration policies immediately spring to mind.
Moreover, certain persons may feel themselves entirely alienated from the national folk community. Yet they may often be willing to participate in democratic institutions for the purpose of subverting such communities and abolishing the rights of democratic citizenship. During the last century, Communists were the prime example of such subversives; today they have been replaced by Muslim immigrants. Surely the regime stands under no duty to let itself be destroyed.
During the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany tried to respond to this difficulty by decreeing Berufsverbote, or ‘profession bans,’ to keep subversives out of certain sensitive kinds of work. Yet such a law has considerable potential for abuse. Today the Berufsverbote are plainly being misused by Germany’s globalist elite to harass and demoralize patriotic opponents of Muslim immigration or European integration—opposition they have been pleased to declare intrinsically ‘antidemocratic.’
Sometimes loyalty to the constitution is said to be the criterion for distinguishing loyal from disloyal political opposition. Yet this seems hardly satisfactory; patriotic citizens may favor all sorts of far-reaching constitutional changes as well.
Benoist masterfully evokes the dilemma of pluralism before concluding as follows:
Pluralism is a positive notion, but it cannot be applied to everything. We should not confuse the pluralism of values, which is a sign of the break-up of society, with the pluralism of opinions, which is a natural consequence of human diversity. . . . Freedom of expression is thus destined to end not where it interferes with others’ freedom (this being a liberal formula which could easily be shown to be hardly meaningful), but rather where it stands in contrast to the general interest, which is to say to the possibility for a folk community to carve a destiny for itself in line with its own founding values.
It remains to be seen whether standards such as “pluralism of opinions but not values” or “the possibility for a folk community to carve a destiny for itself” will prove less ambiguous or less vulnerable to corruption than loyalty to the constitution or not interfering with the rights of others. Perhaps no possible legal remedy against subversion is at once unambiguous and incapable of abuse.
In his fourth chapter, Benoist turns to the critique of modern representative democracy, which he sees as “intimately connected to Judaeo-Christian morality and the philosophy of the Enlightenment.” This conception of democracy rests upon supposed rights inherent in all human beings. From such a perspective, nations seem mere conglomerations of people accidentally thrown up by history and without intrinsic meaning. Instead of peoples, we see masses: “transient pluralit[ies] of isolated and rootless individuals.” Democracy in the classical sense becomes impossible, for there is no folk in whose destiny anyone might participate.
Elections were originally meant to be a way of allowing ordinary people to participate in public life by helping to appoint their own rulers. In contemporary mass-democracies, they are little better than a travesty of this idea. They serve instead as “a way of legitimising the power which professional politicians exercise over a passive population” (Benoist quotes archeologist Paul Veyne).
In democratic theory, candidates wish to be elected in order to implement their own program for the people’s future. Today’s candidates are more likely to adopt whatever ideas they think will get them elected. Electoral platforms are increasingly based on opinion polls, which yield the same results for all parties. Campaigning consists of reaching out to the ‘center’ where opinions are nothing but “impression[s]: vague, contradictory and ill-defined ideas that depend on their moods and infatuations and which are in constant flux.”
Using the same techniques to fish in the same swamp, it is hardly surprising that “in the case of a final ballot between two candidates, the result is invariably in the 50/50 range: it is increasingly unusual for elections to be won or lost by more than a tiny percentage of votes.”
Once elected, the politician hastens to take measures he knows will prove unpopular or which go against the promises he previously made; demagogic measures reappear when new elections are approaching. We may blame such behavior, but it is a natural consequence of the undeniable fact that politicians owe their position far more to their parties and financial backers than to the voters. Neither the campaign financing game nor the internal structure of the modern political party have anything democratic about them, however.
In a word, democracy is sick because citizens cannot vote for politicians from whom they may expect a course of action reflecting well-defined commitments. As a result, “the political life of liberal democracies is now experiencing an unprecedented wave of indifference and apathy.”
What the author describes here as the fate of democracy in the modern world is simply bureaucratic corruption, a process which occurs in all sorts of contexts. A lucid and (to this writer) compelling way of analyzing it is provided by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. Democracy, in MacIntyre’s terms, is a kind of practice, i.e., a socially established co-operative human activity aimed at a good. Other examples of practices include the arts, the sciences, historiography, warfare, and worship.
Like all human practices, democratic politics requires institutions which support and nurture it, but the practice is not simply equivalent to them. Like all institutions, democratic political institutions create a system of incentives which only partially coincides with the aim proper to democratic practice itself, viz., the flourishing of the political community concerned. Most of the energy which goes into electioneering is directed toward what MacIntyre would call the institutional rewards external to democratic political practice itself: perquisites of office, traffic in patronage and so forth.
Thus, what in a healthy democratic polity might be a leader’s vision for the destiny of his folk community gets replaced by a ‘platform:’ a poll-derived, focus-group-tested list of ‘positions on the issues,’ the merest ideological packaging designed to market the party-designated nonentity du jour to the masses.
MacIntyre goes so far as to define virtue as that which enables those engaged in human practices to resist the corrupting influence of institutions. In terms of this analysis, the crisis Benoist identifies in democratic institutions amounts quite simply to a lack of virtue.
The reader may snort that he was able to arrive at a similar conclusion just by looking at the sort of men who rise to high position in contemporary Western regimes. I agree. The rise to power of moral midgets like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Angela Merkel et hoc geno omne is the best possible confirmation of the correctness of this analysis.
The Problem of Democracy is very much a theoretical treatise, and the final chapter on concrete reforms is the briefest and sketchiest in the book. Benoist emphasizes that institutions themselves matter less than popular participation in them. Venues for such participation include municipal associations, regional assemblies and professional bodies.
The people should be given the chance to decide wherever it can; and wherever it cannot, it should be given the chance to lend or deny its consent. Decentralization, the delegating of responsibilities, retroactive consent and plebiscites are all procedures that may be combined with universal suffrage.
* * *
The Problem of Democracy is not an easy work to digest. In part, this stems from the author’s habit of expressing himself by means of agreement or disagreement with a host of French and continental European figures largely unfamiliar to American audiences. Some of these are worthy men in their own right, while others are forgettable publicists cited only to make a point, but the difference may not always be clear to the reader. The publishers have, however, added numerous footnotes for added clarity.
Alain de Benoist has been a celebrated and controversial figure in French intellectual life, as well as an uncommonly prolific author, since the early 1970s. His non-reception in the English-speaking world contrasts weirdly with the mob of academic acolytes surrounding frivolous figures such as Jacques Derrida. The work under review is only his second title to appear in English, following On Being a Pagan in 2005.
The reason things are, belatedly, starting to change is the recent emergence of small, unsubsidized publishers such as Arktos which have stepped in to do work the sclerotic academic publishing establishment should have performed years ago. Arktos Media, Ltd. has existed only since 2010, yet they have already published the first two English translations of Guillaume Faye and have announced an entire series devoted to Benoist. This is among the most heartening developments of the last few years.
Devlin, F. Roger. “Rethinking Democracy: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy.” Counter-Currents Publishing, 14 October 2011. <http://www.counter-currents.com/2011/10/rethinking-democracy-alain-de-benoists-the-problem-of-democracy >.
Note: Alain de Benoist’s The Problem of Democracy was originally published in French as Démocratie: le problème (Paris: Le Labyrinthe, 1985), and is also available in a German translation as Demokratie: das Problem (Tübingen & Zürich: Hohenrain, 1986), in Italian translation as Democrazia: il problema (Firenze: Arnaud, 1985), and in Spanish translation as ¿Es un Problema la Democracia? (Barcelona: Nueva República, 2013).