We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Democracy or Pan-European Totalitarianism

Martin Cole takes a Popperian cudgle to the deadening hand of the emerging Euro super-state

Pericles in his famous funeral oration for the slain warriors of democratic Athens, among many other ringing statements in favour of democracy, pertinently said the following:

Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely.

The above is quoted directly from Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies published in paperback by Routledge Classics (ISBN 0-415-23731-9). It should be required reading for all members of the convention chaired by Vallery Giscard d’Estaing on the future structures of the European State.

Others following these debates are also recommended to the book, but for those unable to obtain a copy, or spare the time to read it, I give below a brief summary of what I consider to be the most salient points as concerns the dangers Europe now faces if the convention proceeds as seems likely. In my opinion, never will the outcome of such a debate be likely to affect so many millions of people, and rarely can there have been such reluctance to openly discuss the frightening implications of the decisions being taken.

Plato is the early villain in Popper’s analysis for the ever present drive against democracy and equalitarianism. The author describes, with detailed logic, the elitism, racialism and totalitarianism that can eventually result in a Society that follows the ‘chosen people’ concept, intrinsic to much of Plato’s writings.

Popper makes an excellent case that the critical divide in governance of a geographic entity, whether city, nation (and it follows, super-state) is between collectivism and individualism.

The argument made by Plato that the state be placed higher than the individual and the suggestion that justice is synonymous “for that which is in the best interest of the state” now apparent in the structures of the EU, must be refuted at, virtually, any cost. Anti-democratic forces malign the case for individualism by falsely asserting that collectivism is synonymous with altruism, while individualism is blackened by being equated to egoism.

“Who should rule?” Plato asks and gives his own reply, “the wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow?” Popper proposes that the very question “Who shall rule?” itself, becomes the problem and proposes an alternative question:

How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

I would suggest that the above question is the one that the present convention on the future Europe should be considering.

As Popper argues “all theories of sovereignty are paradoxical”. For instance we may have selected ‘the wisest’ or ‘the best’ as a ruler. But ‘the wisest’ in his wisdom may find that not he but ‘the best’ should rule, and the best in his goodness may decide that ‘the majority’ should rule.

By emphasising who should rule, or indeed on what basis our ruler should be appointed or by what limited constituency he should be elected, we are driven up a blind alley. We should be debating the checks and balances which should be imposed on those who rule us, bearing in mind that only by the best of good luck will any of our future leaders be anything other than reasonably competent. The majority will be incompetent and we will for sure, be subject to the occasional tyrant reaching the pinnacle of pan-European power. How could such a despot be removed? Popper asserts:

A theory of democratic control can be developed that is free from the paradox of sovereignty. The theory I have in mind is one which does not proceed, as it were, from a doctrine of the intrinsic good or righteousness of a majority rule, but rather from the baseness of tyranny: or more precisely it rests upon the decision, or adoption of the proposal, to avoid and resist tyranny.

Continuing with this theme Popper argues that there are two forms of government, those that can be got rid of without bloodshed (such as in general elections) and those that require a successful revolution to replace, or not at all. He labels the first sort ‘democracies’ and the second ‘tyrannies’.

What facilities will the new European super-state supply for the replacement of its rulers… none that I have yet seen proposed, we would thus appear to be heading towards tyrannical, non-democratic rule as labelled by Popper!

Debating who should rule avoids the subject of democratic checks and balances, and leads to further problems clearly evident in the French system of government, such as, that the qualities of leadership may be believed to be identifiable at a young age and an elite education provided, tailored along the lines of those attributes considered important by the existent ruling clique. Self-perpetuating incompetent rule, or worse appears to me the inevitable result.

France nevertheless clearly remains a democracy within Popper’s definition, is this likely to remain the case for the Union of Europe if a French model is imposed on the already un-democratic institutions of the existing EU? The first draft constitution clearly places the State above the individual, inter alia, by granting rights beyond its gift to give, or power to protect.

It would be a major mistake for the new Europe to follow a Platonic pattern of government, but a mistake that daily appears more likely. The existing EU is already the kind of elitist, non-accountable, non-removable nightmare against which Popper warned when he wrote his book in the early nineteen forties. It is incredible how little Europe seems to have learned from those wartime years and the events leading to them.

I have frequently heard it boasted, the EU would not have advanced this far, (or?) to ‘ever closer union’, had democratic authority been sought at every step!

The present difficulties of the common currency and acceptance of the latest expansion amongst the general public, should amply demonstrate to the extreme federalists who make such remarks, that the limits of such non-democratic coercion have now been reached. Proceeding with further imposed integration, and consequent diminution of national democratic protections, could threaten the whole project of future European unity. Rumblings of discontent abound in all three of the major EU States I have recently visited!

I appeal directly to the Chairman of the convention, who, probably co-incidentally, incorporated my earlier minimum requirement in his initial constitutional draft, to read Popper’s excellent book and consider its implications. To achieve lasting renown, requires a bold step in favour of democratic fundamentals which will be strongly resisted by the various Brussels and National elites! Courage mon brave!

Should Europe’s new institutions be directly controlled by ‘the majority’ using the new tools available from the revolution in information technology?

Why is the major topic of discussion in the Convention, not about how the people of Europe may periodically remove their leaders and avoid the new organisations such as the ERRF and Europol becoming the instruments of a despot?

Are, perhaps, the tyrants already in control?

These are the questions that need to be addressed. Using Popper’s labels of societies, they can be democracies or tyrannies, if the EU is to take on the full characteristics of a State, as the majority in Europe seem to believe is desirable, test whether this statement is true with a pan-European referendum. If the answer is Yes!, then build a Democracy for which all should wish, and of which they can be proud.

If No!, then at least the convention and its Chairman will not have lent their name, to the creation of perhaps the largest tyranny the world has yet to see!

Against whom will the name of Vallery Giscard d’Estaing be set in history… Pericles or Plato?… and for the creation of what kind of European Union, one of democracy and freedom or Popper’s only alternative…?

Martin Cole

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on Google+Share on VKEmail this to someone

15 comments to Democracy or Pan-European Totalitarianism

  • Well I agree that the ‘Platonic’ EU of the here-and-now is a bad dream come true… and that the EU of the near-future is a nightmare come true, but democracy per se solves nothing and in fact just legitimises all manner of tyranny as people seek to vote themselves other people’s money… just as the framers of the US Constitution rightly foresaw and tried to avert with limited success, Democracy is no less inimical to liberty than anything else unless it is bound hand and foot and held at gunpoint in a sort of ongoing Mexican standoff (The Second Amendment has nothing to do with owning guns for sporting purposes).

    The secret of Happiness is Freedom, and the secret of Freedom is Courage
    – Thucydides, Pericles’ Funeral Oration

  • blabla

    You referred to individualism and collectivism as the two opposing ends of the political spectrum. Where do you believe democracy lies on this spectrum?

    As a US resident, the biggest threat to me is not any wise ruler or self-appointed leader, but rather democracy.

    I fully support your anti-EU stance, but I’m afraid it is democracy that has legitimized and given power to the EU in the first place.

  • Alan Forrester

    Democracy is very slightly less shit than tyranny. However, it is very much more shit than anarchocapitalism see David Friedman’s ‘The Machinery of Freedom’.

    I don’t want to see a European superstate of any kind, shape or form, democratic or otherwise. I would dearly love to get rid of all state institutions and replace them with free market institutions, a European state would just be one more annoying, stupid, clumsy bit of bureaucracy for libertarians to get rid of once libertarian ideas gain currency.

  • “Continuing with this theme Popper argues that there are two forms of government, those that can be got rid of without bloodshed (such as in general elections) and those that require a successful revolution to replace, or not at all. He labels the first sort ‘democracies’ and the second ‘tyrannies’.”

    Drat — not only did somebody get their first, he was someone famous.

    But I still like my version better.

    If you have a democracy in the original sense, what do you do if the majority becomes tyranical? Power tends to corrupt, regardless of who has it. So I have three types. Ones where you can vote them out, ones where you can cut their heads off, and ones where they’re the majority.

    Obviously, then, I think using communications and computer technology for large-scale direct democracy is an extremely bad idea.

  • Julian Morrison

    Plato asks: “who should rule?”

    Popper asks: “how can we minimize the damage a ruler can do?”

    I say: there’s no way to minimize the damage, rulership is the damage. The proper question is, how to be rid of the rulers?

  • John Thacker

    Julian Morrison says “There’s no way to minimize the damage, rulership is the damage. The proper question is, how to be rid of the rulers?”

    Silly Utopianist, I say. All of human experience and history points that there is, in fact, no way to be completely rid of rulers. In fact, those who promised the most to be rid of rulers altogether (like the Marxists, or the Jacobins) were responsible for some of the most heavy hand of rulership and damage of all. (Do not forget that Marx and his followers prophesized a “withering away of the State.)

    What’s more, your silly and obviously untrue statement that there’s “no way to minimize the damage” is down right hurtful to the cause of liberty. Can you truthfully say that there’s no difference between, say, the American system and that of Soviet Russia? I certainly don’t trust anyone who can’t recognize the attenuation of liberty in different situations, its presence or absence in degree to be able to guard it from encroachments.

    Even in the absence of a government, there would effectively still be rulers. There will remain property, and there will remain contracts, and thus there will need to be a way to define and defend both. I have absolutely no faith whatsoever that any institution arising in any society will not attempt to become a government. I don’t care if it’s your perfect anarchocapitalistic world. Sovereignty and power would still exist. Divide that power, put checks upon, do whatever one can to preserve liberty.

    But don’t give me your Utopian nonsense and claim that one can establish perfection here on Earth.

  • Michael Rollings

    In a Democracy do the Candidates lay their beliefs before the Electorate and we vote for them accordingly or do the Candidates represent their Electorates views when empowered? Whichever, it would be an imperfect system,because we are dealing with individuals and groups simultaneously.

    It appears that power is a two-way street, surging up and down lines of communication. The shorter the lines and the closer the people are to it, then all the better.People then seem to divide into activists, supporters or just indifferent until they are effected by decisions imposed on them.

    It all seems to boil down to keeping democracy as local and focal as possible (no system is perfect) but it seems beyond doubt that the EU is the antithesis of this.

    The Leader (appointed) should be the lubrication that keeps the system working as smoothly as possible. His /her failure to do this should be the reason for deposition. How does Mr Blair match up?

    Imposition without the opportunity for proposition is what breeds discontent. The areas where imposition is deemed necessary on a collective should be minimised. It should be assumed that a collective will act in its own best interests within a framework of just laws and rules which have foundation only in the order of the majority. In other words to stop the self-interest of one groupprevailing against the self-interests of another.

    An individual can become a tyrant a collective can be an unaccountable interfering busybody.The voter must have the right to elect and remove either periodically even if benign.

    Democracy is a pot-pourri of both, so maybe it boils down to what it smells like?

  • Michael Rollings

    In a Democracy do the Candidates lay their beliefs before the Electorate and we vote for them accordingly or do the Candidates represent their Electorates views when empowered? Whichever, it would be an imperfect system,because we are dealing with individuals and groups simultaneously.

    It appears that power is a two-way street, surging up and down lines of communication. The shorter the lines and the closer the people are to it, then all the better.People then seem to divide into activists, supporters or just indifferent until they are effected by decisions imposed on them.

    It all seems to boil down to keeping democracy as local and focal as possible (no system is perfect) but it seems beyond doubt that the EU is the antithesis of this.

    The Leader (appointed) should be the lubrication that keeps the system working as smoothly as possible. His /her failure to do this should be the reason for deposition. How does Mr Blair match up?

    Imposition without the opportunity for proposition is what breeds discontent. The areas where imposition is deemed necessary on a collective should be minimised. It should be assumed that a collective will act in its own best interests within a framework of just laws and rules which have foundation only in the order of the majority. In other words to stop the self-interest of one groupprevailing against the self-interests of another.

    An individual can become a tyrant a collective can be an unaccountable interfering busybody.The voter must have the right to elect and remove either periodically even if benign.

    Democracy is a pot-pourri of both, so maybe it boils down to what it smells like?

  • Michael Rollings

    In a Democracy do the Candidates lay their beliefs before the Electorate and we vote for them accordingly or do the Candidates represent their Electorates views when empowered? Whichever, it would be an imperfect system,because we are dealing with individuals and groups simultaneously.

    It appears that power is a two-way street, surging up and down lines of communication. The shorter the lines and the closer the people are to it, then all the better.People then seem to divide into activists, supporters or just indifferent until they are effected by decisions imposed on them.

    It all seems to boil down to keeping democracy as local and focal as possible (no system is perfect) but it seems beyond doubt that the EU is the antithesis of this.

    The Leader (appointed) should be the lubrication that keeps the system working as smoothly as possible. His /her failure to do this should be the reason for deposition. How does Mr Blair match up?

    Imposition without the opportunity for proposition is what breeds discontent. The areas where imposition is deemed necessary on a collective should be minimised. It should be assumed that a collective will act in its own best interests within a framework of just laws and rules which have foundation only in the order of the majority. In other words to stop the self-interest of one groupprevailing against the self-interests of another.

    An individual can become a tyrant a collective can be an unaccountable interfering busybody.The voter must have the right to elect and remove either periodically even if benign.

    Democracy is a pot-pourri of both, so maybe it boils down to what it smells like?

  • Michael Rollings

    In a Democracy do the Candidates lay their beliefs before the Electorate and we vote for them accordingly or do the Candidates represent their Electorates views when empowered? Whichever, it would be an imperfect system,because we are dealing with individuals and groups simultaneously.

    It appears that power is a two-way street, surging up and down lines of communication. The shorter the lines and the closer the people are to it, then all the better.People then seem to divide into activists, supporters or just indifferent until they are effected by decisions imposed on them.

    It all seems to boil down to keeping democracy as local and focal as possible (no system is perfect) but it seems beyond doubt that the EU is the antithesis of this.

    The Leader (appointed) should be the lubrication that keeps the system working as smoothly as possible. His /her failure to do this should be the reason for deposition. How does Mr Blair match up?

    Imposition without the opportunity for proposition is what breeds discontent. The areas where imposition is deemed necessary on a collective should be minimised. It should be assumed that a collective will act in its own best interests within a framework of just laws and rules which have foundation only in the order of the majority. In other words to stop the self-interest of one groupprevailing against the self-interests of another.

    An individual can become a tyrant a collective can be an unaccountable interfering busybody.The voter must have the right to elect and remove either periodically even if benign.

    Democracy is a pot-pourri of both, so maybe it boils down to what it smells like?

  • Martin Cole

    Perry de Havilland suggests Democracy can be perverted in the cause of tyranny, but in the context of Popper’s labelling whereby we take it to solely mean the ability to periodically remove one’s rulers, then it can be considered as flawless. Thanks for the so apt quotation.

    Blabla takes a similar viewpoint, both writers allowing their arguments to be coloured by connotations which have become attached to the term Democracy by its abusers.

    The tendency for democratically elected rulers to extend their rule beyond proscribed limits is always one of the early signs of an emerging tyranny.

    The creation of the EU can clearly be seen to be one means for our elected rulers to achieve this end. Initially and increasingly the case over recent years, they have been able to avoid democratic accountability by transferring decision making authority to closed session fora.

    The latest proposals for a dual presidency, neither elected by universal suffrage, holds out the delightful prospect, for each democratically elected head of any one of the member states, of future, vast, non-democratically restricted and consequently almost unlimited POWER.

    John Thacker has capably disposed of the point raised by Julian Morrison, for which I thank him.

    M. Rollings makes the point that for democracy to function adequately it should be as localised as possible, sufficient argument against the EU in itself.

  • blabla

    Blabla takes a similar viewpoint, both writers allowing their arguments to be coloured by connotations which have become attached to the term Democracy by its abusers.

    Yes, you are correct; I am at a reflexive unease when I hear the word democracy. Voting can be a legitimate form of self-defense against oppressive rulers, and this is IMO the only valid justification for democracy.

    However, democracy easily slides into a means of theft of one citizen by his neighbor. Bread and cirsuses and all that. Your argument hinges on the notion that democracy can be a valid means of non-violent self-defense but must be guarded against the tyranny of the majority.

    I simply do not believe you can separate the two.

  • Alastair

    It might be a strange coincidence. I saw, and bought, this book last
    weekend, whilst browsing in Waterstones bookshop over near UCL in
    London (where I live). I read the book last week, the first Popper
    book I’ve read, although I am very aware of his influence in the
    philosophy of science, and it’s revolutions.

    The book is very timely in a way. I am aware of Plato and his theories
    of the state and it’s government, but never considered his thought in
    such stark terms. That his ideas on the state, politics and social
    makeup were ‘odd’ to me is an understatement; but I had never stopped
    to consider its future influence. Popper is devastating in his
    critique. I can see the thread that runs through Plato, with his
    authoritarianism and racial selection, through to the totalitarian
    states of the 20th century and the planned economy. His passionate
    arguments against the ‘historicism’ that leads one to design a
    ‘science’ of history, a plan for society wide experimentation, is
    ghastly.

    I am very pessimistic now about the ‘European Project’. From an
    initial enthusiasm a few years ago, I now fear a ‘statism’. I fear
    that the ‘large’ scale will swamp the small. I am sick and tired of
    this overbearing centralisation, and it’s associated disregard of
    ‘local’ concerns and our democracy. I still like France, and Italy,
    Poland, Greece, Spain and all the other countries of Europe. I am not
    anti-european at all. But I feel less and less close to even my OWN
    government and democratic institutions, let alone a European
    government. Where’s my voice? Who listens to me? I don’t want a
    ‘designed’ government, designed by ‘enarques’ and PhD’s. Screw that.

  • I agree totally! Bravo, Popper! I really need to read “open society…”–it’s been sitting on my shelf without being opened since I got it several weeks ago.

  • Michael Lonie

    Have the constitution drafters there read “The Federalist”? Maybe that ought to be on their reading list as well as Popper’s excellent book. Of course, the sophisticated Europeans may not be willing to consider the ideas of simplistic Americans, even ones of the 18th Century.