Notes on democratic fundamentalism

Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into Jordan Carter’s declaration that he’s a libertarian socialist — as he said on the tweets, “it’s just a pun, an oxymoron. Which I found amusing”. So I may be overreacting in the particular case, but if you’ll forgive that, it’s made me look at and consider my own perspective in a way which lends itself well to writing down.

I think Jordan is cherry-picking his definitions; co-opting two existing pieces of fashionable terminology for the sake of provocative pretension. I think what he’s described is really just liberal-social-democracy of the relatively ordinary modern kind — a pretty far cry from anything resembling either libertarianism or socialism in actual history — and I don’t see what’s gained by smacking an ill-fitting label on it. But there’s a fair bit to lose. For a start, by doing so you alienate all those who really do call themselves libertarians and the socialists (though perhaps that’s not a great loss).

Moreover, as a matter of political branding it’s braindead. By applying what is, unjustly or not, heavily loaded and controversial terminology to what is actually a thoroughly mainstream political movement you risk marginalising it. ‘Socialist’ and increasingly ‘libertarian’ are markers of political extremism, at least in the Anglo world. They breed mistrust and fear, and rightly so: you can carry on all you like about how the horrors of 20th Century socialism and communism weren’t worthy of the names, but the fact is those were the names which stuck. They’re beyond reclamation. (I’ve argued this before, and I understand it’s not a line which is popular with wishful socialists, and you’re free to disagree — but I’d prefer not to argue the toss at too much length again; it’s really a sidebar in this post.)

‘Libertarian’, although Ayn Rand hated the term and its baggage, has been similarly redefined from its original usage by her heirs, and the authoritarian-conservatives who are busily colonising that movement (Tea Party, UKIP, ACT etc; collectively I call them ‘liberthoritarians’). Association with that lot is anathema to social democracy and left praxis of any sort. On the other flank you have the link with anarchism, whose symbolic currency among the social mainstream to whom a political vehicle like the Labour party must appeal is little better.

That’s all really just a preamble, though, to the following more important bit of the post, which is about my own rather amorphously-defined political perspective (bearing in mind that this is also a massive topic which I hope do deal with in about a thousand words and a couple of hours). The reason I think it’s daft and a bit pretentious to adopt titles like ‘libertarian socialist’ is that I’m less interested in what people declare to be their philosophy and more interested in the mechanisms they choose to promulgate that philosophy. Being a “socialist” or a “libertarian” or whatever else is one thing, but if your commitment to achieving the aims of your chosen creed is via democracy, that implies a commitment to fulfilling the expressed wishes of your society whether or not they accord with your own. If the electorate really does decides it wants a full-scale neosocialist agenda and votes in a government which will deliver it, a genuinely democratic libertarian movement will not impede the progress of such an agenda except by legitimate legal means; and by the same token, if the electorate seriously votes for the neutering of government and the implementation of a social-Darwinist Nightwatchman State, then a genuinely democratic socialist movement will grudgingly accede to that. The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.

Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism — that people have the right to determine the shape and nature of their society (right or wrong), that the government must answer ultimately to the governed, that there’s no other proven method of ensuring smooth, regular and nonviolent power transfer, and so on. For these reasons I have no truck with non-democratic movements on either side of the aisle; the authoritarian socialists who killed a millions in the last century, or the modern-day liberthoritarians who call for the violent overthrow of legitimate governments with which they happen to disagree, or those who argue that democracy is broken because voters make ‘bad’ choices (with the inference that, for society’s sake, the power to make such choice should be stripped from them).

Such movements don’t hold with democracy; they may tolerate democracy as long as it gives them results they like, but democracy doesn’t work that way. You take the bad with the good, on the understanding that you will have the opportunity to win back the fort and set things to rights again, if you can persuade the electorate that you’re worth supporting. So to merit consideration as a legitimate political movement, this commitment to democracy is a necessity. And to a large extent such a commitment — assuming bona fides can be demonstrated — is sufficient to grant legitimacy. For this reason, as much as I despise the ACT and New Zealand First parties, for instance, I do accept that they have legitimacy inasmuch as they generally conform(ed) to and support(ed) the robust, existing democratic norms of society. Regardless of the policy mix which sits on top of it, I can tolerate a genuinely democratic movement because in a robust democracy, you should only get away with doing what the electorate permits you to do.

Explained this mechanical sort of way it’s a naïve view, but to be useful, notions such of these do need to be considered in light of what lies beneath. Determining whether a given system constitutes a democracy worthy of the name is often non-trivial, particularly at the margins. Even within generally robust democratic systems, there exist distortions and imbalances which warp access to and exercise of power in favour of one group or another. There is even a pretty wide tolerance within which a democratically-elected government with a mandate to do so can fiddle with the levers, creating advantages for itself while not fundamentally rendering the system undemocratic. The authority of democracy is also not ironclad, it does not obtain outside the existing normative moral, ethical and legal frameworks of humanity; if 51% of an electorate decide it’s ok to slaughter all blue-eyed babies, it being democratically certified does not make such a provision legitimate. So in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism at all — there are sound arguments to be had all down the line about these and other factors, and indeed recognising and addressing the (many) limitations of democracy isn’t something to be shied away from.

The question of ultimate sovereignty also can’t be ignored. The ultimate authority for how a society ought to be configured rests with the people, and if this means that a government, democratically-elected or not, is acting egregiously counter to the electorate’s wishes in ways which democracy can’t fix, stronger medicine must sometimes be applied.

This is the reasoning the Tea Partiers claim when calling for Obama to be overthrown; and that Lindsay Perigo (now shilling for a noted authoritarian who is the parliamentary leader of a noted authoritarian party) appealed when he declared the Clark government illegitimate. But while some legitimate grievances exist(ed) in both cases, those calls were and are vexatious. In reality a stronger standard is needed to maintain the balance between democracy and ultimate sovereignty. Of course, in both cases the calls for insurrection came to nought — they were manifestly idiotic and consequently did not attract support; and moreover, in both cases subsequent democratic elections under the systems that both provocateurs claimed were invidious returned strongly in favour of the opposition parties, utterly disproving the assertion. In the New Zealand case, the incoming government repealed the offending Electoral Finance Act, doubling that proof (and then proceeded to enact something very substantively similar, to very scarce outrage from anyone).

Of course, this principle of the peoples’ sovereignty means the electorate can relinquish its power, vest it permanently or semi-permanently in some other mechanism of power. I’ll get the obvious out of the way now: this is what happened to the Weimar Republic; the existing democratically-legitimate rulers of Germany ceded their authority to Hitler, who enjoyed impunity from democratic censure (and, it must be said, who brilliantly exploited the constitutional arrangements of the republic to engineer the ongoing popular support for his cause and the ineffectuality of his opponents). What happened in the years following 1933 is an example of why a movement’s commitment to robust democracy must be treated as fundamental, but the ultimate recourse to power must remain with the people.

For me what it all really boils down to is the comment usually attributed to Tocqueville, that a democratic society gets the government it deserves. But this is both misattributed and misquoted — it was Joseph de Maistre, and the original quote omits ‘democratic’. The implication is that any society gets the government it deserves. A sham democracy exists because those governed by it do not demand more — more representation, more transparency, more robustness, more accountability. A dictatorship is such because its victims didn’t do enough to prevent one from becoming entrenched, or overthrow it once it had become entrenched. This is a harsh view, and strictly incorrect — there is little the Ukrainian peasantry of the Holomodor could have done to prevent their expurgation as a result of Stalin’s decrees, and nothing they did to deserve such a fate, for instance — but the essence of truth in the quote is generally that, in the final analysis, nobody has a greater responsibility or ability to ensure that their government carries out the wishes of the people it governs than the people themselves.


44 thoughts on “Notes on democratic fundamentalism

  1. Brilliant post Lew. We share an ideology after all.

    What too many people seem to miss is the reality that capitalism is an almost infinite number of democratic decisions. I “vote” for your product by buying it.

    The corporatist monopoly is an offense against that market democracy and equally offensive to the morality you set out so well above. I don’t get to “vote” when there is only one Telecom provider.

    The more enlightened companies like Ford realised that their workers needed to be paid enough to be able to make their democratic choices in a prosperous capitalist society and that is where unions can play a valuable part in ensuring labour earns enough to make their democratic decisions. equally the labour monopolies like Cook strait ferry and airport/airline crew who strike at critical times must be constrained from abusing the democratic choices of others.

    You can also argue that every child must be educated as well as possible so they can both make better democratic governance decisions and earn the money to make more democratic purchase decisions. That means constraining the power of teachers over the education choices of students and parents.

  2. What I mean by that last para is preventing education unions from protecting their own where there is a product failure. If a teacher is failing they must be removed and the process for that must be strengthened. We fail too many children by forcing them and their parents to accept inadequate schooling through lack of choice.

    That will cost money but it is better than continuing to condemn poor children to inadequate education leading to inadequate choices for working.

  3. “The trouble is that many, if not most, libertarian and socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient.”

    This is where I think more evidence is required. Let’s look at this in the context of NZ. I doubt anyone would disagree that the vast majority of NZers (including Jordan Carter) are genuine supporters of democracy. Is that also true for libertarians and socialists? The Libertarianz, the Workers Party, and RAM got about 2600 votes in the last election. Even if all those voters are democratic in name only, which I don’t believe, it’s a small number. Even if only 10% of Greens identify as socialist or 10% of ACT identify as libertarian, that’s a much larger number.

    For the quoted sentence to be true requires, I think, one of the following:

    (i) Counting numbers of “movements” rather than numbers of people, which I think is beside the point. There might be a dozen Trotskyist movements in NZ, but it doesn’t make sense to pay them much mind if most of them have fewer members than a rugby team.
    (ii) A low threshold for “many”.
    (iii) For a substantial proportion of Bradford/Locke-type socialists and Don Brash-type libertarians (or 65% libertarians, as Perigo would describe them) to be democratic in name only. Remember we’re talking present day, so I don’t think being sympathetic to Communism in the Seventies is relevant.

    I can’t definitively rule out (iii), but I don’t see a compelling reason to believe it.

  4. I sense that you have committed the deadly sin of questioning the faith and are being gummed into submission by the intellectual equivalent of the teething babe.

  5. Although I like your defense of democracy as a political form, it is the “so on” in paragraph six that I am most interested in. Surely “democratic fundamentalism,” as the undergirding or foundational belief in society, includes at least some if not all notions of equality, freedom, choice, toleration, human rights, egalitarianism, solidarity, fair exchange, mutual consent, etc. That is, (and as I have argued in the series of posts about democracy last year) it is not reducible to the political, much less procedural level of social interaction. So where does that fit in with your conceptualisation?

    I think that is where the Left and Right diverge: the Left thinks in terms of class and collective rights while the Right thinks in terms of individual rights and freedoms unencumbered by collective constraints (among many other points of difference). That is why I agree that the phrase “libertarian socialist” is silly to the point of absurd. I shall leave aside discussion of instrumental views of democracy (the means-ends aspect of democratic dynamics) simply because they are the antithesis of your beliefs.

    I disagree with your last point about dictatorships becoming entrenched because the “victims” did not do enough to prevent it or resist it ex post. I realise that you are stylizing the argument, but having lived through a few coups and been involved in anti-authoritarian resistance movements earlier in my life, I shall simply note that given material differences, access to weaponry, levels of education and so forth, it is often impossible, at least over the short to medium term, for the population to prevent or fight back against a dictatorial take-over, especially when economic elites and foreign powers favour the coup-mongerers. Externalities, in other words, impinge on the ability of the masses to resist authoritarian take-overs above and beyond popular support for democratic fundamentalism as you describe it.

  6. Pablo, yes, I purposefully did not rehash the ‘so on’ in detail, mainly because of the series of posts you did on the topic previously (and the various discussion threads here about them). Likewise the question of whether the terminology can be rehabilitated or not — worthy topics for discussion, but bigger than the post.

    Your critique of my closing point is well taken, and I accept that I’ve done a poor job of the explication here. My intent was not to pretend that the starving, unarmed Ukrainian peasants who failed to fight off the Red Army and propaganda machines earned their fate, nor in general to ‘blame’ victims of totalitarianism, so much as to illuminate the responsibility that people have to remain vigilant against it, and above all to safeguard systems which will permit them to wrest back control of their society from those whose interests are not their own.


    I don’t think it’s valid to count numbers of voters in this case; especially since all such movements we’re discussing are more or less electorally irrelevant, and attract only die-hard ideologues with a protest vote. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to group factions together — the Tea Party, for instance, is in fact nothing of the sort — it’s a collection of independent but aligned movements. Likewise the People’s Front of Judea/Judean Peoples’ Front sort of thing within socialism.

    I think the one thing almost all of these general ideological threads have in common is a disdain for democracy; among many revolutionary socialists there remain no real compunctions about cutting corners in service of the ideological agenda; apologists for Hugo Chávez are just the most recent examples of this, as is the infamous designation of ‘courageous corruption’ on our own shores.

    And among many libertarian movements — the Tea Party, various Randian factions and Seasteading enthusiasts for immediate examples — all live by the ancient statements of democracy being two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner; of the dreams of the few being constrained by the wishes of the many; the notion that the US (in particular) was not conceived as a ‘democracy’ but a ‘constitutional republic’ — all this frames and blames democracy for society’s ills. So that’s your (III), for the record.

    Of course, I haven’t done a qualitative or quantitative survey of these things, so I’ll stand corrected — but I don’t think it’s as contentious as all that. I am talking about fringe movements, after all, those which in general aren’t very well served by democracy.


  7. Great post, thanks Lew. How would a democratic fundamentalist reply to the critiques that while democracy gives votes what they want, what they want may not be in their interests? Either by Marx’s notion of false consciousness, or by the libertarian arguments that democratic systems have maligned incentives which produce sub-optimal outcomes (usually in their case in terms of non-neoclassical economic policy). Do you dismiss these arguments outright as wrong, or do you see existing mechanisms within democracy to accommodate these critiques, or perhaps the basic democratic framework stands but can be improved along either of these directions?

  8. ‘The trouble is that many, if not most, socialist movements are only democratic movements insofar as democracy is convenient’

    Most socialists I know want the radical extension of democracy into the workplace: they think that, instead of exercising their democratic rights for five minutes every three years in the ballot box, folks should be able to exercise democratic rights in their workplaces and in their local communities.

    If political dictatorship is bad, why should economic dictatorship be tolerated? Why should a CEO or a Board of Executives have near-total power of the strategy and tactics of a company employing thousands? Why shouldn’t those thousands of workers vote representatives who have an important say in determining company goals and policies?

    Socialists are keen on the grassroots institutions which have sprung up during periods of political ferment – the Commune of 1871, the Soviets of 1905 and 1917, the workers’ councils of Catalonia in the ’30s,
    the workers’ shura of the Algerian and Iranian revolutions, the occupied factories movement in contemporary Latin America – because they see these institutions as potential models for the radical extension of democracy from parliament into everyday life. It seems a bit uncharitable to present an enthusiasm for economic as well as political democracy as an indifference to democracy.

  9. Food Baby, sorry about the delay in replying.

    I have little tolerance for ‘false consciousness’ and suchlike arguments, including those of libertarians like Caplan who argue that democracy produces ‘bad’ outcomes. not to say that I don’t think the phenomena described by these arguments are real; only that I think they’re a bit irrelevant. Two main grounds for this. First, the basis of democratic liberalism is that people get to collectively decide the shape and nature of their society. It’s theirs; it doesn’t belong to philosopher-kings, economically focused or otherwise. This strongly implies a right to be wrong; to enact sub-optimal policy, do stupid or deleterious things, and generally screw up society. That’s not ideal, of course, but it’s less-bad than entrusting the levers to some crowd of people who ‘know better’. Such ideas are, I believe, the ‘instrumentalist’ themes Pablo referred to in his comment above.

    The second ground (and I’ve also written on this at some length) is that howling about false consciousness and so on shifts the burden of democratic responsibility (you could say ‘blame’) from the proponents of an agenda to the people who those proponents have failed to win over to their cause. Essentially ‘false consciousness’ arguments, and the ‘irrational voter’ arguments made by Caplan, and others of the sort, are as far as I’m concerned little more than excuses for a political movement’s failure to successfully contest the battle of ideas. Society, or the electorate, can vote for what it likes; it’s up to political movements to persuade them to vote a certain way or believe certain things. If zealots of any sort are correct that their ideas are perfect and flawless, they should be an easy sell. This is especially true of socialist movements which, by definition, seek to improve the circumstances of the greatest number, because democracy is a numbers game.


    I understand this argument and have much sympathy for it, but what I keep coming back to is the fact that state-scale socialism in actual history has not progressed by democratic means. Isolated sub-state communes, worker-owned factories and so on are well and good, and I do not mean to rule these out entirely. But for the most part they are they are not serious state-level political movements, and none have yet emerged into a fully-fledged democratic society. The chief examples of state-level socialism through the 20th Century illustrate exactly the problem: Marx’s schema, followed broadly in the USSR &c, requires monopoly counterrevolutionary power to be concentrated in the hands of an undemocratic elite. So while the aims of the revolution may have been democratic (economically and politically; it should be noted I am dubious on this count also) on the philosophical level, the means by which these values were promulgated were anything but. They never have been, and I argue that democracy under such model can’t work because in a genuine democracy, you can’t simply reserve monopoly counterrevolutionary authority and remove it from the democratic realm. That way ensures that those who hold that authority can never be relieved of it, they enjoy impunity, and impunity corrupts. Solve this power transfer problem and it might work. And anyway, if socialism is so obviously right, why is it so hard to persuade people to support it? See my comments above about false consciousness and blame-shifting.

    And so around we go. If you’re a socialist and your means are democratic, great: you’re persuading people to support you, seeking and gaining a democratic mandate, and enacting (socialist) policy on that mandate. If your means are otherwise than democratic, if they require ultimate authority to be removed from or safeguarded against the people changing their mind, or doing something you don’t want them to do, or making a ‘wrong’ decision, or whatever then I don’t care how wonderful your political agenda is — the risk of authoritarian capture is probably not worth it.


  10. Scott – You seem to misunderstand. If you dont like the wage and the rules of the workplace dont take the job. If you dont like the price dont buy the product.
    What entitles you to anything beyond that, other than the dictatorship of the proletariat

  11. Lew/Scott – Fonterra is a fantastically successful example of a workers co-operative

  12. ‘Marx’s schema, followed broadly in the USSR &c, requires monopoly counterrevolutionary power to be concentrated in the hands of an undemocratic elite’

    But where exactly does Marx lay out a ‘schema’ for a post-revolutionary society? All I find are some very general remarks and ome gestures towards actually-existing social phenomena which might be the rough models for socialism. Marx gestured at the Paris Commune, the Iroquois Federation, and the Russian peasant commune as possible models for socialism, and it’s hard to see how these things have much to do with what you’re talking about.

    To say this is not to say that the Bolshevik revolution was necessarily anti-Marxist: it’s just that there isn’t a simple line between Marx and modern revolutions, because Marx never laid out a schema for a post-revolutionary society, and because Marx never saw some key features of modern revolutions. Marx never lived to see the phenomenon of the soviet, for example.

  13. ‘I have little tolerance for ‘false consciousness’ and suchlike arguments’

    I can understand an objection to the arrogance or laziness with which the term ‘false consciousness’ is sometimes deployed, but it’s hard to study any society or subsection of a society in any detail without resorting to a concept like false consciousness (you may give it another name, for instance), unless you take a radically relativist position, and argue that there is no way of comparing a society’s beliefs and practices to any model of truth outside that society.
    Would you fancy writing about, say, Destiny Church without assuming that the beliefs of the organisation’s leaders and many of its members are in large part false and, to some extent at least, dangerous? I’ve been researching nineteenth century slavery in the Pacific lately: am I supposed to suspend my belief that the slavers held false and abhorrent beliefs? These are extreme exmaples, of course, but you see my point.

  14. Scott, I don’t need to explain to you the archetypal progression from bourgeois-dominated to classless society via an interim revolutionary regime which suppresses and prevents counter-revolution in order to enable the proletariat to work toward the ultimate goal of Communism. This is hardly obscure, and either I misunderstand what you’re asking, or your question is a capricious distraction from the point at hand.

    I understand that in the Paris Commune the roles of that regime were filled democratically, and that is worthy — but it was also an anomaly, and one severely lacking in robustness. Lenin, and later Stalin’s revolutionary interim regimes were more robust — much more — but they were also not democratic in any meaningful sense. In otder to persist and be useful, a regime must be both.

    Whenever the purpose of your regime is to preserve or oppose an existing order (rather than to give form to the wishes of the people) there is a danger that the wishes of the people and the imperatives of the regime will diverge; essentially, in this case you must simply hope tat they continue to accord. When they do diverge, one must give way, and in every state-level case in history, the imperatives of regime survival have prevailed over democracy, at least for a fair time. That is the problem, because at that point the project ceases to be about the proletariat and becomes about feathering the nests of a new bourgeoisie. That this happens isn’t a surprise; if you rely on the honour system, you place yourself at the mercy of those with the power.

    You can argue all you like that this isn’t the fault og Marx (and Engels, obviously) — indeed, as I’ve said before I use the name as a shorthand, hoping to elide circular discussions such as this one. I don’t blame Marx so much as his successors and those who added to and reinterpreted and implemented his theories. But ultimately that progression is broken, un-implementable. Something like it could work, but the power transfer problem must be solved. But given the history of such experiments I think it is prudent to require those safeguards against authoritarian capture be demonstrated to an extremely high standard.

    Regarding false consciousness — I mentioned in the comment above that I don’t dispute the existence of the phenomenon; it describes a real thing and that has legitimate applications. But I think its usage is extremely limited in the context in which it’s commonly used — to discard the views of someone whom someone perceives to be acting counter to their revolutionary class interest. This usage begs the question as to what a person’s interests are, and is particularly idiotic inasmuch as it seeks to determine a person’s interests from outside their lived experience. It treats Marx’s class analysis as an objective, eternal, universal fact, and in this regard the attitude is little better than A = A.


  15. Lew, I think you do in fact need to explain where you find the advocacy of (in your words) ‘progression from bourgeois-dominated to classless society via an interim revolutionary regime which suppresses and prevents counter-revolution in order to enable the proletariat to work toward the ultimate goal of Communism’ in Marx, if you’re going to call this ‘Marx’s schema, followed broadly in the USSR etc’. As I say, I don’t think you can find any such ‘schema’ in Marx.

    It does seem to me, too, that you’re a bit too quick to conflate Marx’s thought with Engels’, when you say that a statement about Marx will ‘obviously’ also be a statement about Engels. The two men did not think alike, and key parts of Marx’s oeuvre, like volumes two and three of Capital, owe more to Engels than to Marx himself (we can now see this, because Marx’s own drafts of volumes two and three have been published – and they differ dramatically from what Engels made of them).

    It might seem like pedantry to insist on the non-identity of Marx’s thought, Engels’ thought, and the thought of the Bolsheviks, but I think that the conflation of all of them was one of the major obstacles to socialist thinking in the twentieth century. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and its Stalinist satellite parties on the one hand and the ‘Natopolitan’ right-wingers of the West on the other had a vested interest in promoting the 1917 revolution as the logical outcome of Marx’s ideas, and on presenting the Soviet Union as it came to be under Stalin and his successors as the logical outcome of the 1917 revolution. The right-wingers loved this because it was a way of discrediting Marx; the Stalinists loved it because by claiming Marx, and indeed Lenin, they were able to claim credibility and authority amongst socialists.

    But the effect of the teleology which said Marx = Lenin = Stalin (= Mao = Pol Pot etc etc) was to discourage anyone from actually reading what Marx actually wrote, and studying what the Bolsheviks actually did in 1917 and the years immediately after. Since the end of the Cold War there has been a flood of new writing from the left which gets beyond the old teleology, but the right keeps banging the same drum.

    I’ll give one example of the gap between Marx and some of his folowers. I think if you looked at Marx’s later writings on Russia, and on pre- or semi-capitalist societies in general, you would quickly perceive a profound difference between his belief that agrarian societies can leap from pre-capitalism to socialism using pre-capitalist forms like the peasant commune and Engels’ and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s view that the peasantry is not a revolutionary class.

    This is not to say that Marx was necessarily right, and his followers wrong: it’s just to point to an important difference, and a potential set of insights in Marx’s late work which have gone unappreciated. Kevin Anderson and Michael Lebowitz are two high-profile Marx scholars who have in the last year published books that attempt to revisit Marx’s late writings on semi-capitalist societies and use them to understand revolutions in relatively undeveloped countries like Venezuela and Bolivia today. Lebowitz’s book, in particular, is supposed to be of practical value to his comrades in Latin America, and by all accounts it has been received with considerable interest there. I’m pleased that he and Anderson and other scholars were able to get past the conflation of Marx and all his successors and recover and use some of what Marx actually wrote.

  16. Scott, I understand your desire to rehabilitate Marx and his teachings, but as I’ve made clear a number of times, I have no interest in arguing this particular toss. I’m happy to concede that I’m not equipped to do so, but the whole thing is a distraction from the point of my argument, which doesn’t in the slightest hinge on whether it was Marx or Engels who said a particular thing which was then implemented to a greater or lesser extent by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc. etc.


  17. Lew – I see you and Pablo have no desire to engage with an extension in definition of democracy beyond a tight political view. I read your post as being defined reasonably widely so as to avoid prescription and was simply attempting to assist in tightening the definition. It is impossible to engage with Pablo’s “notions of equality, freedom, choice, toleration, human rights, egalitarianism, solidarity, fair exchange, mutual consent, etc” without moving from the theoretical to the practical and extending the logic of your argument to its natural conclusion.

    Nevertheless your post if worth discussing further. You will take the idea of democratic fundamentalist to its logical conclusion in due course. It is all about informed free choice.

    I am interested to know whether you supported the idea of John McCain for a league of Democracies. Recognising the fundamental illegitimacy of so many members of the United Nations means that the global choices of democratically elected Nations should be treated with more respect than that of autocrats.

    We would agree that the democratic choices of a slothful uninformed democracy remaining ignorant by choice remain valid. But what about the democratic choices of a politically manipulated uninformed populace. At what point does the incumbent democratically elected manipulation of media or attempted changes of previously implemented limits on power become non democratic.

    I recall an argument with Pablo regarding the Honduran removal of a democratically elected leader by the military by order of the Supreme Court after he attempted to start changing a part of the constitution that provided for term limits.

    The term limits were imposed to prevent incumbent manipulation. I viewed the military action as representing a legitimate protection of democracy. Pablo disagreed. President Zelaya had behaved as though he was above the rule of law.

    I disagree with the assertion in your post that a democratic society gets what it deserves. At some point the democratic protections can be overridden by an incumbent with the means and the motive. Chavez in Venezuela is a fine example of someone who was democratically elected but has chipped away at the protections and free availability of information and choice to the point where Venezuela is no longer a legitimate democracy. What can the individual democratically minded Venezulean do?

  18. Phil:

    I am on the record as believing that political rights precede economic rights (stated in a post here at KP), so it should be no surprise that I share Lew’s primary belief in the overarching importance of democracy as a political form. However, beyond that we tend to differ–I see class as the most important socio-economic divide that needs substantive redress and balancing, whereas (if I read Lew correctly), he sees identity, read as more than class, as the primary issue around which substantive debates should occur.

    I disagree with your statement that Fonterra is a model cooperative, and would point to Scott’s comments about the Spanish Communes (and phenomenon that was not limited to the 30s), etc. and the new forms of worker control in Argentina as better examples (notwithstanding that I have reservations about Scott’s real knowledge of Latin America as opposed to second hand book knowledge). Farmers do not set prices or dividends in the Fonterra scheme, nor do they collectively decide where to invest and what percentage of profits should be divided between investment and payouts. That is done by non-farming corporate managers whose paycheques and attitudes reflect the class divide that separates them from their erstwhile “constituents” (and sources of their livelihoods).

  19. Phil, McCain was never clear on exactly what the League of Democracies would have entailed – whether it was a NATO style military alliance or more of a UN style attempt at laying down international norms.

    If it was the latter the people who object to the UN would have objected to the League too, since American conservatives basically hate being told what to do by foreign democracies as much as they do by foreign dictatorships.

    If it was the former, NATO already exists, and I don’t see how having Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand join NATO (or an organisation that exactly parallels NATO in membership) would really change anything given that they’re all allies of the USA anyway and have no substantive ability to military cooperate with any of NATO’s other members.

    In other words the “League of Democracies” was an insubstantive bit of twaddle. However I do think you have pointed out an interesting correspondence between McCain style conservatives who enjoy attacking the UN on the basis of non-democracy’s participation in it, and left-wing democratic purists who believe that any engagement or cooperation with non-democratic governments makes democratic governments guilty by association towards their crimes.

  20. Pablo – I checked back and found the post you were referring to. It is apparent that you and Lew take a stronger theoretical academic approach in your comments whereas mine seem to be much more tangible. Not saying mine are better, just there being a fundamental difference in the way we look at things as well as the conclusion.

    I understand the theoretical basis for your preference for stating democracy as a political form only and that economic rights are preceded by political rights.

    I just don’t see how that works in the real world. Citizens of Singapore and China have obviously subjugated their desires for political rights because their economic “rights” in the form of prosperity are outperforming their neighbours. Meaning they have sacrificed one for the other.

    There are people in this world who are prepared to sacrifice their lives for freedom. There are many others who are happy to sacrifice any political rights in return for shelter food and entertainment.

    Lew is right to identify that both of those types are equal under a democratic system.

    What it leads me to is the conclusion that political rights and economic rights are inextricably combined. In some societies the political will more more advanced than the economic and the reverse in others.

    To your preference for resolving the so called “class divide”. What class is Obama, Soros, Clinton? Exceptions certainly, but class is not static. Should society be limited to the speed of progress of those who are content with shelter food and entertainment or should society reward those who are prepared to work harder and more innovatively? The 20th C experiments in the failed ideology of socialism showed what happened when you have equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity.

  21. Hugh mostly captures my views on a League of Democracies. I think it’s a problem that the UN confers such legitimacy upon illegitimate regimes, but it is also a necessary evil. A league of democracies sounds great in theory. But Hugh’s argument that the ‘New World Order’ proponents who remain within the US don’t want their authority constrained by another transnational body is true; and if that’s not the purpose of such a league, it would simply be another way for the US to shore up flagging worldwide influence. It could be a good thing, but as McCain has framed it I am very dubious.

    I’m enjoying the discussion, but I want to set a couple of points straight. First a minor one: my position is not that identity is, prima facie, the most important division point within a polity — my position is that it’s not automatically less important than the class analysis. I essentially see it as being a matter for individuals and groups to determine the balance for themselves, and the various intersections of class, race, gender, &c privilege are not mutually exclusive.

    More significantly, I do not see economic and political rights as equal, as Phil suggests — and I certainly do not think that they are inextricably combined. ‘Economic rights’ in really-existing societies are provided and safeguarded by political rights; the reverse is not true except in the imaginary polities of libertarian-utopian fiction.

    Phil, regarding your rather trite question about whether Clinton, Soros and Obama mean we’re now post-class — no, no more than Obama, Powell and Sotomayor mean we’re now post-race, or Clark, Gillard and Thatcher mean we’re post-gender (which you probably think we are, also). You can’t made a determination like this by cherry-picking a few exceptionally mobile individuals. You have to look at the wider demographic groups from where they emerged, and for every luminary from humble beginnings, there are hundreds, or thousands, who you’ve never heard of but who remain dirt-poor repressed and dysfunctional. And then, from time to time, you get people who are both, like the recently late Gil Scott-Heron, who in spite of fame and recognition never escaped the societal reality of growing up poor and black in Harlem.


  22. Phil, they’re not exceptions, they’re all upper class. The fact that they haven’t been upper class all their lives doesn’t somehow break the idea that class is an important divide (and in all three cases it’s possibly to severely underestimate the humbleness of their origins). All theorists of class from Marx onward have accepted that class isn’t locked in at birth.

  23. There’s an interesting piece in today’s Guardian arguing that the mass protest rallies occurring in Greece are the closest Europe has come in recent times to real democracy, as well as a revival of the ancient Greek institution of the agora:

    Once again we see the way that in a situation of economic and social crisis forms of popular democratic organisation appear outside of parliament. The exact form that the grassroots democratic institutions take depends very much upon the history and culture of the local society. I hope the Greeks can build up their own version of the Russian soviet, the Arab/Iranian shura, the Argentinian Popular Assembly, and the Venezuelan Bolivarian Circle.

  24. Hugh/Lew – So if you are not arguing that class boundaries are fixed you seem to be arguing that equality of outcome as opposed to equality of opportunity is desirable. How do you provide incentive for progress on that basis given the failed example of 20th Century socialism?

  25. Scott – That Guardian piece is recycled from somewhere. It would be nice if German, Dutch and British taxpayers were able to exercise their democratic rights to be consulted with regard to bailing out the profligate Greeks.

  26. Scott:

    Interesting piece but a bit over blown. As I posted several times while living in Greece last year, the Greeks have a deep sense of entitlement and many do not equate productivity with standards of living. They are also very staunch and feisty and will demonstrate at the drop of hat over any number of perceived ills, some governmental in origin and some not. They are the antithesis of Kiwis when it comes to making their feelings known.

    Then there are the hooded anarchists who enjoy making trouble for trouble’s sake, and who are disproportionately represented on the front lines of the rock and molotov throwing crowd (along with their famous dog, now in its third generation). These folk have little interest in the substance of the protests themselves, but see demonstrations as opportunities to provoke mass violence in pursuit of civil war. They have been responsible for the majority of innocent deaths in protests the last few years (including three innocent bank clerks, one of which was a pregnant first time mother, during the time I was living in Athens).

    None of this behaviour, seen once again in the latest round of protests, represents a new form of democratic community or agora, or for that matter a commitment to democracy at all. It is just a time-honoured Greek tradition when it comes to showing collective displeasure, and having seen it up close I can attest that it is highly ritualised and choreographed by both the police and the mob.

    Your LATAM examples are a bit closer to the ideal.

  27. Isn’t there an element of mob grumpiness to most radical democratic institions, though, Pablo? Democracy can be pretty brutal. And were the original agora paragons of rationality and civility? Wasn’t it the ancient and very imperfect Athenian democracy which condemned Socrates to his death? There is surely a tradition of crudity and provocation built into the Greek philosophical tradition, as well – Socrates could be an aggressive old tramp, and Diogenes apparently sometimes did philsophy by running about in public masturbating.

    I doubt whether there has ever been a revolutionary movement of any size which has been without a strong undercurrent of chaos, irrationality, and pettiness.

  28. Lew – Alright Lew as per your request: Democracy is a form of government. It is an answer to the question who should rule. It does not have the political content you wish ascribe it. If you are a liberal then you hold the values of liberalism higher than those of democracy. You may find democracy a convenient means or even the best means, but you cannot be simultaneously both a “democratic fundamentalist” (as you claim to essentially be) and a liberal.

  29. Why, because you say so? I sketched out the interactions between liberalism and democracy in the post and it’s pretty clear that the way I’ve framed them is non-exclusive. It’s a pity you still haven’t gotten around to reading it.


  30. Lew – I’ve read it.

    Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to a set of principles. In this case the principles of democracy. What you try to do is escape from what is lexicographically speaking (in the context of politics, with operationally dominant intersubjective consensus i.e. for the vast majority of language games relevant to politics) escape from the definition of the term “democratic fundamentalism” and the obvious consequences of adhering to such an ideal. This is why you have to say that “in this way what I’m talking about it isn’t really democratic fundamentalism”. You need to do so to escape the obvious conclusion one would draw logically from the definition of those terms.

    Democracy ought to be seen as a means not an end unto itself. You either uphold the values of liberalism or you adhere to democratic fundamentalism. You simply cannot have both.

  31. QtR,

    Given that you replied to the post about David Shearer and identity politics, not to the post on democratic fundamentalism, and fail to engage even slightly with the actual argument, my response to your assurances that you’ve read the post is, in a word: bollocks.

    Democracy, as I argue is a means of implementing a political or ideological agenda, not a political or ideological agenda in itself. Democracy, as I argue is bigger than a given political or ideological agenda, inasmuch as people working towards wildly different aims can agree on it as their preferred means of achieving those aims. This is neither a complicated observation nor especially novel.

    You’ve seized on the lexical confusion that I highlighted and addressed in order to try to negate the argument, rather than actually arguing it.

    If you’re prepared to actually debate the point I’ll debate; but I’m not going to indulge this sort of nitpickery on a six-month-old post.


  32. Lew – I replied here because it is your most recent post.

    You negate it by arguing that what you really mean by democratic fundamentalism is not what would be commonly understood by the definition of those terms. That “democratic fundamentalism” is not really “democratic fundamentalism”. Obviously I find this unconvincing. I’ve seized on the lexical confusion because you have created the lexical confusion. You cannot redefine terms to suit yourself.

  33. In which case you add nothing to the discussion. It begins at the point where I say that I am what might colloquially be called a democratic fundamentalist, but concede that the term doesn’t exactly capture what it is I mean (which I then go on to explain).


  34. Lew – You said “I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist”. Essentially means being such by its very nature. Not kind of sort of.

    You don’t say “colloquially” in the post and the colloquial definition would follow from the commonly understood definition of those terms not by some redefinition of them.

    If the term doesn’t exactly capture what you mean why did you apply it to yourself and why don’t you just disown it?

  35. As I said, I’m not indulging this sort of idiocy six months after the fact. If you wish to discuss the substance of the post, please do. Otherwise I’m out.


  36. Although I think I have previously disclaimed the title, I am essentially a democratic fundamentalist — I consider the commitment to democracy to undergird the rest of a political-philosophical agenda, rather than sitting on top of it. The reasoning is a mix of principled and pragmatic arguments which I’ve also made many times before, mostly derived from uncontroversial old-fashioned liberalism

    Your “democratic fundamentalism” isn’t really in line with old-fashioned liberalism though is it. Do you think De Tocqueville who said:

    I have an intellectual inclination for democratic institutions, but I am instinctively an aristocrat, which means that I despise and fear the masses. I passionately love liberty, legality, the respect for rights, but not democracy … liberty is my foremost passion. That is the truth.

    would think “democratic fundamentalism” an uncontroversial derivation of old fashioned liberalism. Do you think Lord Acton author of “Democracy in Europe” or Burkhardt or Montalembert would? Of course there were those more disposed to democracy like Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises, but I can’t see that they would find “democratic fundamentalism” as uncontroversially derived from old liberalism.

  37. QtR – De Tocqueville may profess to be a liberal but that does not make him right. It is intellectually incompatible to profess a desire for liberty but then to suggest it should only apply to yourself and those like you. Lew partially understands that which is why he is a supporter of democracy, the choice of government. He may eventually understand that true liberty includes the choice of where to work and what to buy which is democratic market capitalism.

  38. He may eventually understand that true liberty includes the choice of where to work and what to buy which is democratic market capitalism.

    We can only but live in hope, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

    De Tocqueville may profess to be a liberal but that does not make him right.

    It would also make most thinkers wrong as well as he so widely considered a liberal and such an important figure in the history of liberalism. You cannot just write him out of the history of liberalism. That so many old liberals either expressed antipathy towards democracy or their support was tempered by healthy skepticism should make one see that a “democratic fundamentalism” could not be uncontroversially derived from old fashioned liberalism.

  39. De Tocqueville is expressing an idea going back to Plato, that of the desirability of a ruling elite, elected from and sustained by their peers.

    I would not write De Tocqueville or Plato out of the history of liberalism on that basis, simply point out that DT has honestly expressed a view that is not intellectually compatible with true liberty.

    For me the fundamentalist aspect that Lew is getting at is the opposite of what DT reveals. It is the necessity to include those whom you judge to be incapable of a sensible decision. The inclusion of NZF in NZ government is a prime example. I might despair of those who voted for Winston First but their vote is as good as mine, you cannot have it any other way.

    “Democracy ought to be seen as a means not an end unto itself. You either uphold the values of liberalism or you adhere to democratic fundamentalism. You simply cannot have both.”

    You are quite wrong as I explain above. True liberty is not just for yourself, it must apply to everyone and that means holding steadfastly to the principle of one person one vote even where the outcome of that will probably be inferior to a more tightly defined set of voters. Vaclav Havel showed how you must stand up for all the little points of substance rather than compromising otherwise the whole edifice is undermined. The same applies to democracy and for that reason being a democratic fundamentalist is the only way you can have consistent liberal principles.

  40. I think it’s cute how both of you – to varying degrees, Phil less so than Q — are insisting on strict definitions of what constitutes liberalism, in particular the expression of longing that I may one day “come around” to holding the extreme political views that you argue are the logical conclusion of a belief in liberalism, in spite of the fact that almost nobody actually holds such views in reality, much less seeks to implement them with the rigour you declare to be necessary.

    I tire of No True Scotsman arguments, and in particular I tire of these notions that the only “real” liberalism, or the only “real” democracy is the wafer-thin kind. The kind where there is no substantive state and your actions and choices themselves are your democratic expression; or that if there is a state it must take a narrow, literalist view of the democratic process — people vote for a thing, therefore the state must enact it without further ado, and that’s really all there is to it. This conflates liberalism and democracy in ways that I find detrimental to proper understanding of both.

    So I reject the sola scriptura arguments to liberalism just as I reject the wafer-thin conceptions of democracy — they are useful in their place in the 18th and 19th centuries but they are not in themselves a complete praxis suitable to contemporary society. Thicker conceptions, that include robust base and superstructure organs, and including supra-national agents such as the UN to impose broader constraints on states, are more useful and are in fact what we have. The reason I wrote the OP was not to declare blind fealty to unfettered democratic whim, but to sketch out the interactions between democracy and liberal pluralism, to argue that they complement each other, but that, ultimately if I had to chose one, I would reluctantly choose these thick systems of democracy, even if at times this means sacrificing liberalism. Thankfully, I don’t have to make such a choice — the two coexist, for the most part peacefully.


  41. You are quite wrong as I explain above. True liberty is not just for yourself, it must apply to everyone and that means holding steadfastly to the principle of one person one vote even where the outcome of that will probably be inferior to a more tightly defined set of voters

    One vote is not equal to another. One person one vote does not exist in the real world. That is the practical reality of the matter.

    It does not follow that if true liberty is for everyone then we must hold steadfast to democracy. When if we hold steadfast to democracy a majority could strip a minority of their liberty and make a mockery of the idea of equal liberty. What is needed is a steadfast commitment to liberty. The value of liberty needs to be held higher than that of democracy.

    Lew – If your reason was “not to declare blind fealty to unfettered democratic whim, but to sketch out the interactions between democracy and liberal pluralism” than I must ask again why you called it “democratic fundmentalism” given the actual content of those terms?

    The reason why the old fashioned liberals did not hold democracy in as a high regard as you is because it is a commitment to liberty that undergirds the rest of their political-philosophical agenda. That is because they are liberals. It is not a commitment to democracy. That is why you can’t uncontroversially derive “democratic fundamentalism” from old fashioned liberalism. When you say that “ultimately if I had to chose one, I would reluctantly choose these thick systems of democracy, even if at times this means sacrificing liberalism” you mark yourself out not as a liberal, but as what you essentially said that you yourself are a democratic fundamentalist.

  42. QtR, because there’s no handy phrase which describes what I mean, but that one is reasonably close.

    I never claimed to have “uncontroversially derived” democratic fundamentalism from old-fashioned liberalism — merely to state that the old-fashioned liberalism itself was mostly uncontroversial (that is to say, when taken in broad context rather than as cherry-picked bits here and there, such as you have chosen).

    I didn’t claim to be a liberal fundamentalist because I am not one — for the reasons I’ve described: that such a position, when taken to extremes yields perverse outcomes. I am not a libertarian, and will remain a disappointment to you on that score. And happily so.


  43. QtR, because there’s no handy phrase which describes what I mean, but that one is reasonably close.

    And I should think liberal is also a phrase which does not describe what you mean. Given your admitted readiness to sacrifice liberalism for democracy, democratic fundamentalism does indeed seem reasonably close.

    I’m cherry picking from a field of cherries, Lew. You should well know about the conflict between old-fashioned liberals and mass-democratic reformers in the 19th century. One can look to the likes of Benjamin Constant or the French doctrinaires in the wake of the French revolution. As you are not trying to derive a ‘democratic fundamentalism’ from old-fashioned liberalism than it is a moot point.

    In your list of uncontroversial precepts of old-fashioned liberalism you do not mention anything like liberty is essential for the dignity of man. In fact you do not even mention liberty at all. A curious omission for a supposed liberal. You do not even try to argue that democracy is the best means for securing liberty because it appears that for you democracy is an end unto itself. What we appear to get from you is statism for the sake of statism, democracy as an end unto itself and politics merely as a commons on which competing coalitions seek mutual exploitation. Where is the liberal vision in that?

    Perhaps this omission is because you understand that democracy and liberty are separate concepts and one does not necessarily entail the other and that in fact there is a conflict between the two. To quote liberal philosopher Ortega y Gasset:

    Liberalism and democracy happen to be two things which begin by having nothing to do with each other, and end by having, so far as tendencies are concerned, meanings that are mutually antagonistic. Democracy and liberalism are two answers to two completely different questions.

    Democracy answers this question—“who ought to exercise the public power?” The answer it gives is—the exercise of public power belongs to the citizens as a body. . . . Liberalism, on the other hand, answers this other question—“regardless of who exercises the public power, what should its limits be?” The answer it gives is—“whether the public power is exercised by an autocrat or by the people, it cannot be absolute; the individual has rights which are over and above any interference by the state.”

    This is why liberals have placed limits on the state and democracy e.g., the Bill of Rights. Because they are not fundamentally democratic and nor is our current state.

    I would also question your contention to the contrary of Phil that economic and political liberties are separate. Liberties whether labeled under economic, social, civil or political do not inhabit separate spheres they overlap and are intertwined. For instance, the banning of pornography would not only abrogate freedom of expression, but it also bans economic activities; the sale, production, distribution and ownership of a product. To give a real world example the libertarian legal activist group the Institute for Justice won a court case in New Orleans to allow a couple to sell second-hand books from street stall using a first amendment argument.

    You may find it cute (in your condescending manner) from me and Phil, but it would be interesting to know how you reconcile your extreme anti-market bias with your purported liberalism, how you approach the empirical evidence from systematic analyses that economically liberal nations have greater prosperity, less poverty, less violence, greater human development, and greater civil and political rights protection, or the poverty and misery that command and control economies have engendered, how you approach democratic failure, voter irrationality, arrow’s paradox and its implications for collective choice via voting, the (im)possibility of interpersonal utility comparisons, the incoherence of collective rationality, etc?. When one looks at representative democracy, and the real-world model of elections, anyone who is not at least cynical is delusional.

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