Quick Links to sections within this part
We Have To Earn The Right To Power
The Herd Still Believes All We
Need is "Good" Leaders
"Rights" are a Collective
Project - the flaw in American Libertarianism
Hostility To Collectivism
Drives Hostility to Democracy
Libertarians Need Democracy
as much as Democracy needs Liberty
The Default Setting Of the Universe
Liberty - The Basis of Anarchism
Can a Majority EVER Justify
Force Against a Minority?
The Choice: Democracy or Totalitarianism
We Have To Earn The Right
1 of this chapter, I stripped away most of human history to focus
on the evolution of the core division in human ideology which crystallised
in the experience of ancient Athens. This is the
first place on Earth and the first time in recorded human history
that we see the revolutionary and unequivocally absolute concept that,
instead of social control based on the whims of a self-justified elite
backed by arbitrary, usually physical, authority, we should, at least
for the purposes of decision making, all be treated as equals and take
an equal part in the responsibility for running our communal affairs.
The first hint of horizontal society. No hint of hierarchy. No dint
of delegation. No dilution. Just - People - Power. Just Democracy.
It forced a reaction on the part of those who prefer the vertical structure
of society (presumably because they prefer the view from their current
position within that vertical structure). Hence Democratic Athens also
produced the first formal attempts at justifying "traditional"
authority. It is hardly a surprise, then, to learn that the principal
philosophical and historical opponent of democracy - Plato - claims
(or rather, others claim on his behalf) Royal Blood. His father Ariston
traced his descent from the king of Athens, Codrus, and the king
of Messenia, Melanthus. Plato's mother was Perictione, whose family
boasted of a relationship with the famous Athenian lawmaker and lyric
poet Solon. Perictione was sister of Charmides and Critias, both prominent
figures of the Thirty Tyrants, the brief oligarchic
regime, which followed on the collapse of Athens at the end of the
Peloponnesian war (404-403 BC)(source)(emphasis
The "Thirty Tyrants" were from the aristocratic families
whose class had lost power at the inception of the Democratic regime.
They siezed the opportunity of a period of confusion following the war
and tried to "resume normal service" by ending the Democratic
experiment. So Plato is not just royal blood, but a member of the families
who formed the main opposition to Democracy while it was still alive.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that Plato's entire focus should be on
justifying why his class should retain control. He was bred for it.
Thus he explained, with conveniently but deeply held conviction, that
social decision making is such a complex and difficult art; and failure
can have such dire consequences, that only an elite with appropriate
skills, education and personalities can be allowed to take part in it.
Amazingly, in two and a half thousand years, no-one has improved on
his argument, so the philosophical debate has hardly moved on at all.
To illustrate how static this line of reasoning has become, Noam Chomsky
to our attention the thoughts of Walter
Lippmann - who died in 1974 and thus shared the same timeframe and
attitudes to Democracy as our friend Leo Strauss - on the roles of the
Platonist elite and today's Plebs. (Strauss, of course, provides his
own excellent examples of the genre)
You'll probably need to read these comments twice before you believe
them, but I recommend you wait till your blood pressure drops back to
safe levels before you repeat the experience.:
Lippmann goes on to explain. First, there is the role assigned
to the specialized class, the "insiders," the "responsible
men," who have access to information and understanding. Ideally,
they should have a special education for public office, and should
master the criteria for solving the problems of society; "In
the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective,
political decision," which is their domain, "is actually
brought into relation with the interests of men." The "public
men" are, furthermore, to "lead opinion" and take the
responsibility for "the formation of a sound public opinion."
"They initiate, they administer, they settle," and should
be protected from "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders," the
general public, who are incapable of dealing "with the substance
of the problem."
The second role is "the task of the public," which
is much more limited. It is not for the public, Lippmann observes,
to "pass judgment on the intrinsic merits" of an issue or
to offer analysis or solutions, but merely, on occasion, to place
"its force at the disposal" of one or another group of "responsible
men." The public "does not reason, investigate, invent,
persuade, bargain, or settle." Rather, "the public acts
only by aligning itself as the partisan of someone in a position to
act executively," once he has given the matter at hand sober
and disinterested thought. It is for this reason that "the public
must be put in its place." The bewildered herd, trampling
and roaring, "has its function": to be "the interested
spectators of action," not participants. Participation
is the duty of "the responsible man." (emphasis added)
Ignoring the obvious naivete (if anyone knew "the criteria for
solving the problems of society" the world would be a different
place!) how does it feel to learn that you are perceived as a mere sheep
among the "bewildered herd"?
The Herd Still Believes All We Need
is "Good" Leaders
One of the most disturbing aspects of the modern political
landscape is the extent to which the "bewildered herd" still
deserve that patronising description. Their committment to following
"Leaders" is still deeply embedded. Two and a half thousand
years of Platonist conditioning have produced a near consensus. For
a current example (written 2004) do a google for "Where
have all the leaders gone" (or just click that link) and you'll
find (depending on what Google's doing to its algorithm this week) somewhere
between 50,000 and 140,000 pages, most of which are pointing to or copying
extracts from a polemic piece by Lee Iacocca making an impassioned plea
for the emergence of one or more "good leaders". It includes
such gems as:
If you're a politician, courage means taking a position even
when you know it will cost you votes.
variations of which you will, no doubt, have come across elsewhere.
Such sentiments are only capable of a neutral interpretation in any
context other than "Leadership". In other words,
in an election campaign or something similar, where we're merely at
the stage of electing decision-makers rather than making any decisions,
it may well qualify as courageous to profer an argument which you know
to be unpopular and thus risk losing your support and, thus, the opportunity
of "Leadership". However, once you are an Elected
Leader, the idea of implementing a "position" or
policy even when you know it is not democratically approved is a straightforward
breach of even the most simplistic notion of democracy - that policy
should reflect the "will of the people". Yet this "courage
not to represent the will of the people" is clearly what Iacocca
has in mind (along with the vast majority of politicians) and is even
entirely in tune with the Ron Paul "Libertarian" notion of
the Republic rather than Democracy (see below).
There are other significant aspects of that google search which caused
me to use it rather than a specific link to the relevant extract. First,
note the popularity of the meme, and that most mentions of it include
the lengthy extract. Second, I challenge the reader to find any one
of those links offering any kind of criticism or even critical analysis
of what he has to say. Even sites like the "Information Clearing
House" - which generally prides itself on publishing material hostile
to the establishment - reprints the extract without comment or criticism
in a manner which can only be taken as "supportive".
This attitude - the cult of "Leadership" - is clearly still
the majority view. Take a snapshot of modern culture and this is hardly
surprising. Here in the UK, even our most "serious" and respected
news programs spend between 10 and 50% of their precious air time discussing
nothing more substantial than the political consequences of changing
or challenging Leaders. Ever since the Labour party came to power, for
example, there has been an ongoing narrative about the rivalry between
Blair and Brown. Meanwhile the pitiful Tories believe that all they
need to reverse their fortunes is to find an electable Leader. Over
in the States, as I write, they are in the middle of their 2 year campaign
to pick their next dictator to succeed Bush and any analysis of the
political coverage reveals that far more time is spent discussing their
personalities and pecadillos than their policies. There is no hint whatsoever
that policies in a so called democracy are supposed to be a bottom up
rather than top down process. In places like China, of course, where
the cult of Leadership reached something of a peak in Mao's time, they
don't even pretend that such a process is either possible or desirable.
The rest of world, with a few notable exceptions (Scandinavia and Switzerland)
lie somewhere along the same spectrum: Elected Dictators at one end,
Unelected Dictators at the other.
I am, and perhaps you are as well, if you've managed to read this far,
part of a small minority when I dare to make the argument that "Leadership"
is part of the problem, not the solution. Demanding "Leadership"
is an abrogation of our own responsibility. It is a childish request
for Daddy to take charge. But, like it or not, it remains the default
position of Society at large. "Leadership" makes us feel "cared
for" and gives us someone to blame when things go wrong. Anything,
it seems, is preferable to admitting our own responsibility for the
disaster, because we allow the blameworthy free rein to cause their
chaos in the first place.
It is no surprise, therefore that before the Athenian experiment and,
of course, since the fall of their Democracy, the Platonists, in various
"Leadership" guises, have held power virtually unchallenged.
Whether we are talking about the Caesars of Ancient Rome, the Roman
Catholic Church, the Monarchs of medieval Europe and Asia or the Elective
Dictatorships of the modern era, with a few minor interruptions
(like the French Revolution which succeeded in wresting power from the
Monarchy but never quite managed to pass it on to We The People), the
Platonists have always held the upper hand.
And rightly so. Daddy should remain in charge until the children demonstrate
that they are willing and able to control their own destiny.
Surprised? This is not a sudden change of direction. Why should you
expect turkeys to vote for Christmas? It is similarly unrealistic to
expect or require those who already hold power and control wealth to
suddenly come to their senses and give it all up to We The People. It
is, instead, entirely up to We The People to wake up, organise ourselves
and assume power for ourselves. Preferably by peaceful means. At the
time of writing, however, there is no significant sign of "Prometheus
This is not, incidentally, an attack on leadership with a small "L".
The inspirational leadership which arises from one or more individuals
in response to events is essential to human progress. The mistake is
to elevate that kind of natural and transient leadership - which people
can follow if they wish - to a position of permanent (or long term)
political power - which people are obliged to obey, even if they don't
Half a millenium prior to the birth of Jesus, revolution was in the
air. If - in 510 BC - the "aristocrats" hadn't expelled the
last king of Rome, "Tarquin The Superb" ("Superbus"
to his friends. I suspect it read differently then.) they wouldn't have
founded the Roman Republic (and - almost certainly - Christianity would
not have become a major global religion and none of the history which
followed from that development would have happened - or, at least, not
in the way it has). Just 2 years later, the Athenians, as we described
in Part 1, began their somewhat more thorough redistribution of Power,
ejecting the tyrant (Hippias) and introducing full undiluted Democracy.
Less than a couple of decades later, in 494 BC, the "ordinary citizens"
(plebeians) of Rome were also, to a somewhat less ambitious
extent, flexing their political muscle.
If the "Plebs" hadn't walked
out of the city of Rome in protest at the then Consul's harsh enforcement
of credit control, they wouldn't have won the significant concession
of the "Council of The Plebs" and their Elected "Tribunes"
- constitutional hybrids who had some powers considerably in excess
of modern congressmen or MPs. At their peak they could exercise "veto"
("I forbid") against almost any ruling by a higher authority
if they deemed the ruling harmful to the interests of their constituents.
Later "secessions" forced further significant political concessions:
the first formal publication of Roman Law (until then held as a "secret"
by the priests) and primacy of the "Plebiscite"
The plebiscite is a remnant of their political power. Eventually (from
287 BC) a plebiscite - then only a decision made by the Council of the
Plebs rather than today's direct referendum of the people - became the
only recognised means of establishing Law (even over the upper classes
who weren't allowed to participate in the Council) Although they didn't
hold ballots or wide public debates, the Tribunes were obliged literally
to keep open house 24/7 to their electors (which puts today's "weekend
surgery" to shame). Even without ballots, having to be that accessible
would certainly incline the average Tribune to try to please! Like all
systems since, it wasn't a patch on the real thing being pioneered a
few hundred miles away, not least because the Tribunes were still junior
to the Magistrates, Senators and Consul, but it is illuminating to understand
how "advanced" the pre-Imperial Roman system of political
representation was, compared to most modern systems.
Incidentally that historical event (the first "Secession of the
Plebs" in 494 BC) is my contender for the earliest use of "non
violent direct action" as a political weapon. The very first "general
strike". (Let me know if you find an earlier reliably documented
What is most significant about these historical events is that we know
them for the effect they had rather than the personalities involved.
Clearly there was some kind of leadership involved in the democratic
movements and, if we dig hard enough, we can even find the names of
some of the prominent Greeks and Romans who pioneered the ideas and
persuaded masses of other citizens to agree with them and work alongside
them. None of them, though, acquired or required power and privilege
as part of the deal. Yet these movements are amongst the most revolutionary
acts in history. Genuine egalitarian movements don't demand "Leadership"
even though they are clearly inspired by leadership
In any case, all attempts at democracy in the growing Republic came
to an abrupt end with the Caesars, who reinstated "Leadership"
and - in all but name - the Absolute Monarchy; eventually even declaring
themselves divine to boot. And what was good enough for Rome was widely
considered to be appropriate for all other independent "kingdoms"
- a system of government based on the loosely Platonist "divine
right to rule."
Fast forward 17 centuries after the founding of the Roman republic
and if the English "Aristocrats" - the Barons - hadn't had
the balls - and the intelligence to form a co-operative team - to stand
up against King John, they wouldn't have won the political concessions
enshrined in the Magna
Carta. under which, in principle at least (though not really in
practice for a few more centuries), they regained - for the "Senate"
- what they'd lost to the Caesars.
The Barons' solidarity, courage and conviction - like the Athenian
Democrats, the Italian Aristocrats and Plebs before them - won them
the right to a share in political power. And, generally, by moderately
peaceful means. They expelled Superbus, they didn't kill him. The Athenians
expelled Hippias. They didn't kill him. The Barons blackmailed King
John, they didn't kill him. (By the way, the Pope annulled the original
Magna Carta anyway - declaring that the King's agreement was given under
duress and thus not lawful. Yeah. The Pope) And the plebs just downed
tools for long enough to bring the masters to their senses. They didn't
kill anyone either.
Of course there are even more examples where the reigns of power have
had to be lifted from their "cold dead hands" but it doesn't
have to be that way. What is essential, though, is that the underclass
HAS to be prepared to confront the overclass and to make it clear that
non-compliance is not at option.
"Rights" are a Collective Project
- the flaw in American Libertarianism
ALL our so called political or human "Rights" are
won that way and this is the fundamental flaw with the philosophy at
the well-meaning but sadly misguided heart of American (right wing)
Libertarianism, Objectivism, "rational self interest" and
all points west. It is beautifully illustrated by the words of one of
their "sacred texts" - the American Declaration of Independence:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit
... which is very pretty - but philosophical bollocks. If we were
"endowed" with the sodding things, we wouldn't have had to
spend so much time fighting for them! Actually if we ignore the theological
implications, they're right, in the sense that we'll expand on below:
the default setting of the Universe is Liberty. What their formulation
fails to account for is that this applies to every living thing.
Including bullies and predators who routinely exercise their liberty
to deprive us of ours, which, in practice, means that we are constantly
engaged in a fight to retain or regain our own liberty.
It is the nature and necessity of that struggle for "Rights"
and their recognition which exposes the fallacy in the anti-collective
bias of the Libertarian Right. No single slave, no single disenfranchised
man or woman, no single victim of racism or homophobia and no single
colonist could possibly have won the necessary battles to achieve the
end of slavery, universal suffrage, the laws against racism, homophobia,
the ejection of the British Empire and so on. These were absolutely
essential collective actions. Not only did "their Creator"
fail to endow Slaves with Liberty, Women with equality or homosexuals
with the right to pursue their Happiness but by all accounts, their
Creator was quite content to endorse their ongoing repression.
Clearly if the gods themselves weren't prepared to step in and redress
the social balance, and a couple of thousand years of Platonist dictatorship
had failed to throw up a "benevolent dictator" prepared to
step in and right the wrongs, the only way these aspirations were ever
going to be achieved was through the collective action of the oppressed
The full irony of their opposition to collectivism is that the War
of Independence and even - to a lesser extent - the Consitution which
they hold so dear are also classic victories for collective action!
Hostility To Collectivism
Drives Hostility to Democracy
More worryingly the right wing libertarian hostility to collectivism
spills over, quite naturally into hostility to the most overtly collectivist
behaviour we can envisage:- Democracy. This opposition is not hidden,
although to listen to the average American president, politician, commentator
or even citizen prattling on about their "democratic values"
you would be right to conclude that they think they live in
a democracy. In fact those those who actually understand the American
Constitution and want - as they see it - to "reinstate" it
are quite clear in their insistence that it is not and was never intended
to be a democratic institution. This, for example, comes from Ron Paul's
gang - The Liberty Committee:
although the Constitution of the United States does affirm that
the people ordained and established the government of the United States,
they did so, not to promote the will of the people,
but to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide
for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the
blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity….”
Likewise, although the state constitutions affirm that all power is
inherent in the people, they did not establish state governments
to obey the will of the people, but to ensure that all individuals
enjoy their pre-existing rights of life, liberty, and property with
which they have been naturally endowed. (source)
(in other words, "don't you worry your pretty little heads about
it - the grown ups will look after you - just make sure you elect the
The reasons for their hostility include some with which I - as an anarchist
- am more than sympathetic and they play a major role in my proposals
for the revival of Democracy which I will deal with in the final part
of this chapter. Their objection is to "dictatorship by the 51%".
In a nutshell, they don't see - and nor do I in most cases
- why the Majority should (merely by virtue of being the Majority) be
able to dictate to the Minority. They will, I hope, eventually agree
that there are ways to deal with that problem which do not involve the
invention of mythically endowed (and, thus, logically indefensible)
attributes of existence.
We will analyse their opposition to Democracy in some detail in Part
5, largely because it is, generally, honest opposition - as opposed
to mere Platonist deception and self justification. There are very real
problems with Democracy which must be addressed by the Libertarian Left
and which the Libertarian Right are entitled to raise. The spin off,
if we address the problems even to the satisfaction of the Libertarian
Right is that we might actually end the hostility between our two camps
and form a powerful alliance.
Meanwhile, despite its rhetorical tones, there is nothing philosophically
novel or politically revolutionary about the American constitution.
Though it speaks in grand tones about "We The People" - it
never actually proposed a power mechanism based on the collective strength
and wisdom of "We The People". As The Liberty Committee boast:
it was never intended to serve the will of the people. It was always
a paternalistic device designed to serve what a fairly narrow elite
had predetermined were the interests of the people - regardless
of their will.
That is so naive (the idea that you can objectively determine the interests
of the people without a fundamentally democratic mechanism) that it
is frankly embarassing that so many obviously intelligent and well meaning
libertarians can even think like this. (But not everyone chooses to
Unsurprisingly, given that naivete from its paternalistic authors,
the US Constitution has turned out - like all other Republican models
- to be just another Platonist control mechanism. Hardly surprising
given that Plato invented the concept. Granted it seeks to establish
and protect more individual liberties than some (by no means all) other
Platonisms, but, as the Libertarian Right (who still believe that the
Constitution will be their salvation) are amongst the loudest to point
out, it can now be seen to have dramatically failed to meet its Libertarian
Libertarians Need Democracy
as much as Democracy needs Libertarians
What the Libertarian Right must grasp is that if they're sincere
about establishing and protecting those "Rights and Liberties"
which are supposed to be enshrined and protected by their precious constitution,
then they desperately need Democracy to help them achieve that goal.
Why? Because you cannot logically trump any existing hierarchy with
just another hierarchy or by setting arbitrary limits on the power of
the hierarchy. The only way to trump any and ALL hierarchies is to remove
them and replace government with Democracy. All Government is
Government is an inherently Platonist concept. Democracy is the Opposite
of Government. It is NOT Self Government. This is Self Government:
"[The] voluntary support of laws, formed by persons
of their own choice, distinguishes peculiarly the minds capable
of self-government. The contrary spirit is anarchy, which of necessity
produces despotism." Thomas Jefferson addressing the Citizens
of Philadelphia in 1809. (source)
Using the same words, but in the right order, Democracy would be laws
of their own choice, formed by [all] persons. We'll deal
with his natural phobia against anarchy later, though it is worth observing
that "self government" has obviously not prevented the emergence
of the despots Jefferson clearly hoped to avoid.
Democracy is Not Self Government, it is Self
Make that a milestone. Once we can make We The People understand the
crucial differences between Self Government and Self Governance, we'll
have won a major battle, though not the war. In short, self governance
carries the natural autonomy of the individual (see next heading) into
the autonomy of the ad hoc logical groupings through which we organize
society. Membership of an autonomous group is always voluntary. Each
group makes its own rules, has its own aims and ambitions, its own disciplinary
procedures, its own membership criteria and is beholden to none other
than those it chooses to associate with. Decisions are made by consensus
(as far as possible) rather than simple majorities and the very existence
of the group is determined arbitrarily by its members. Groups may choose
to ally themselves with other, similar groups; may choose to use someone
else's rules as a template for their own; may choose to subordinate
themselves to "ubergroups" and so on - or not, as they and
their members wish. The most important thing about self-governance is
that, in the area of activities controlled by the relevant group, they
are sovereign. They don't have to account (for their group specific
behaviour) to anyone outside the group. We'll deal with this in more
detail in part 5.
The Default Setting Of the Universe
Returning, however, to the basic issues of human rights and
the concepts of individual liberty on which we (libertarians at least)
all agree, let's recap, for a moment, the principles on which - within
these pages - we have established the philosophical basis for pursuing
and protecting those liberties.
1) Nothing we can observe or say about the universe can be
proven unequivocally true. The best we can do is to prove some
hypotheses false (or, more accurately, prove them "inconsistent
with the data") As a result there is legitimate doubt even about
such fundamental questions as whether or not we exist (at least in the
form we believe we perceive).
2) In the absence of certainty, the only rational way to deal
with the Universe is empirically - through repeated observations
together with rigorous trial and error and we must always remain open
to the possibility/probability that new evidence will require ongoing
modification of our beliefs about what the universe is and how it behaves.
Rationality can be defined as behaviour or beliefs which are consistent
with our current awareness of the empirical evidence.
3) in the light of this fundamental uncertainty about physical existence
and structure, it follows that there can similarly be no meaningful
objective answer to the question "How Should We Behave?"
There is, and can be, no objective guide to what may be "good"
and "right" behaviour as opposed to "evil" and "wrong".
Not even the existence of life itself, nor the existence of behaviour
which benefits life itself can be construed as evidence for objective
positive ethical value or merit - other than linguistically. i.e. We
can define "good" as that which benefits us (the widespread
adoption of such a definition is, incidentally, a fundamentally democratic
action). But even global consensus on a given "good" doesn't
create a disembodied property of "goodness" which would survive
if we didn't.
4) in the absence of any objective ethical guide, we cannot
argue that any given human proposition, behaviour or belief is objectively
more or less ethically valid than any other. We can only argue,
rationally, about whether a proposition is more or less likely to serve
what we consider to be our best interests and whether it has popular
support. Even though there may be objective criteria for measuring parameters
related to those interests and further objective measures of our success
or failure in serving those interests, the initial assessment of what
constitutes "our best interests" is a fundamentally personal
and subjective process which no third party can make on your behalf
unless you have a significant intellectual impairment or are too immature
or inexperienced to understand how to assess such matters for yourself
(which is, of course, essentially what the Platonists argue is true
of the entire population with the exception of their priveleged selves)
What is prominently absent in any examination of the Universe to date
is any logical, empirical or rational basis for endorsing as "correct"
any given self assessed "interest"; or for restricting any
given action or thought on a priori grounds. We simply do not see any
such constraints in nature - even when we might wish there were (for
example when we watch Orcas killing a baby blue whale, or male Lions
killing rival males' cubs) Whether we like it or not, Liberty - the
freedom to act or think in whatever ways an organism is capable of -
is the default setting of the universe. If you need convincing of this,
I suggest a stroll on the African Savannah, where one or more predators
will, sooner or later, seek to exercise their freedom to eat you.
It is only because - as a socially advanced and reasonably intelligent
species - we have perceived problems arising from the exercise of Liberty
(such as being eaten by predators of other species or killed by predators
of our own) that we have sought to constrain it. However, so distant
are we from our primitive origins, and so successful has the Platonists'
strategy been, that we have internalised the cultural conditioning that
such Constraint is itself the default setting, not Liberty. This mistake
We don't have to "justify" the default behaviour of the Universe.
We might seek to explain, for example, why the Periodic Table has its
revealing structure, but we don't have to provide moral justification
for it. Similarly, we don't have to justify Liberty. It's the way things
are - until we come along and restrict it. And THAT - the Constraints
we place on Liberty - is what requires justification. Unfortunately,
most of our species has forgotten that and now believes that Liberty
itself needs justification.
Amongst the conclusions which follow from the observations summarised
above is that they provide the pragmatic and philosophical platform
for both anarchism and democracy.
Liberty - The Basis of Anarchism
Anarchism is based on the proposition that nothing and no-one
(including other anarchists) should restrict personal autonomy. This
doesn't - as opponents argue - mean we feel free to do anything we please
including the creation of antisocial chaos and disorder. Clearly we
do not regard ourselves as free to restrict the autonomy of others and
this automatically places limits on our actions which, in turn, are
sufficient to prevent the antisocial consequences they fear. In addition,
in the wider social context, our autonomy permits us to act collectively
and agree to policies, active or passive, which may include Constraints
but which we endorse only on the basis of our free and informed consent
with regard to a) the decision making process and b) the relevant policy.
Anarchism is justified on the basis, first, that, as we've said, Liberty
is the default condition and it is the Constraints which need justifying
and second, that your own opinion about an ethical dilemma is as likely
to be valid as anyone else's. Conversely, nobody else's opinion - however
widely held - can be shown to have any more ethical weight than your
own. Hence when an ethical or practical choice concerns only your own
behaviour and has no significant consequences for any third party, no
rational case can be made for you being obliged to take account of anyone
else's opinion (however sensible that advice might be)
Democracy is justified, and made necessary, by the existence of many
(potential anarchists and others) whose conflicting interests, practices
and ethical dilemmas can produce results which can have a significant
- and potentially harmful - effect on third parties. Given the case
for anarchism - that Liberty is the default and that no individual can
claim greater ethical validity than any other - the problem of how to
resolve a shared (social) rather than private dilemma has a limited
range of possible solutions, all of which must - to be consistent with
individual autonomy - incorporate the free and informed consent of the
relevant individuals. They, collectively, need to agree a) the decision
making process and only then, b) the actual policy.
Historically, this ethical requirement for free and informed consent
to both process and policy has been perceived as an obstacle to decision
making rather than an essential prerequisite. In reality, informed consent
is primarily an obstacle to the particular policies favoured by people
with power. So it is routinely ignored and, instead, people with access
to (generally) military power have chosen to suppress and denigrate
the case for both individual autonomy and informed consent and, instead
impose their illicit authority by imposing policies based on - if we're
lucky - the intellectual posturing of a narrow self interested elite
or - if we're not so lucky - naked greed and megalomania. In either
case, the illicit authority is imposed regardless of the opinions and
interests of the individuals affected or, in many cases, even regardless
of clearly demonstrated majority dissent.
The only practical, fair and ethical solution to the problem of conflicting
interests and differing ethical analysis and interpretation of potential
policies - which does not involve any concession to the illicit authority
of a "ruler" or government - is equal participation, by all
involved parties, in a decision making process they've all agreed upon.
We call this process Democracy. It is, of course, somewhat more complicated
than that, but we'll deal with the complexities in Part 5.
As an aside, it is worth noting that there are other potential "fair"
(though not always practical) solutions, like randomizing the answer
or randomizing the decision maker. These are appropriate for deciding
non contentious issues (like which end of the football pitch each team
will start playing from) or selecting juries.
Even tossing a coin (the classic example of how to randomise a choice)
could be appropriate for deciding serious political issues provided
there are only two choices and the balance of opinion is equally divided
AND dispassionate. Unfortunately this is a somewhat rare combination
and where opinion is divided over a serious issue, there is usually
considerable passion invested in the arguments and considerable emotional
resistance to the prospect of "the other side" imposing their
policy. There are, nevertheless, some highly charged issues which can
probably ONLY be decided fairly by random selection - for example the
Democratic Cannibals' lunch! (see below)
What is widely recognised, even by dictatorships, is the need for some
kind of consistency and "fairness" in the decision making
process in order to minimise effective opposition. Platonists certainly
understand the need to minimise such resistance. They have evolved a
fairly sophisticated range of techniques which begin with Manufacturing
Consent but extend, effortlessly, to the use of brute force where
and whenever they deem it necessary.
Democrats must never make the same mistake. Rather than suppressing
dissidence, it should be encouraged and embraced as the very lifeblood
of the democratic process. Democratic debates should be structured around
answering the objections to a proposition, with a view to minimising
dissent; not the Platonist strategies of either simply ignoring or repressing
dissidence. Nor is it viable - as we see in the more sophisticated modern
Elective Dictatorships - simply to create the appearance of a simple
majority in their support in order to justify bulldozing their policies
into Law. A president or policy which attracts only 51% support is a
potential recipe for civil war.
Forget the ethics or politics of the arrangment; you'd have thought
that on simply military grounds the Platonists would have recognised
the advantages of having an overwhelming level of support for any policy
which will need to be "imposed" (i.e. backed up by the use
of force) on a dissenting minority. Traditionally, for example, primates
don't attack other primates in the wild unless they have a clear 3 to
1 advantage. That would imply the requirement for at least 75% support
before dissenters could be threatened with the use of force in the event
of non-compliance. That would at least be a step in the right direction.
If you are going to have to use force to impose the majority will, it
is much safer and much wiser to ensure that, before we start, the vast
majority support BOTH the relevant policy AND the need to use force,
if necessary, to impose it. How do they get away with imposing their
policies without clear majorities? That's where militarised Police Forces
and Standing Armies come into the picture. But, as we know, they're
not democracies, so why is this relevant here? Because even true Democrats
will, on occasion, need to use force.
Can a Majority EVER Justify Force
Against a Minority?
Against criminals obviously, but we can take that as read (subject only
to a democratic definition of crime and democratic judgement of the
Voting, as we'll see below, is really an admission of defeat. It means
we have failed to reach consensus but we've decided the issue is so
important that a decision must be taken anyway and we need to determine
how much support there is for a given proposition and, then, whether
the level of support is large enough and angry or determined enough
to impose their will on a dissenting minority. It doesn't matter how
large the majority is, however. It is still true that any decision -
even one resulting from genuine democratic consultation and decision
making - still has no greater ethical validity than your own opinion,
but at least you now know what other people think and how your opinion
fits or contrasts with theirs. If there is zero dissent, no vote is
necessary. The result is consensus in favour of a given proposition,
the decision becomes "policy" and the issue is settled.
If, however, the decision attracts majority support but falls short
of consensus, then we have a secondary social dilemma - how, or even
whether, to implement the policy when not everyone has signed up to
it. (If you don't yet agree that this is a social dilemma, you'll have
to wait for part 5 for the next round of the argument, but, for a reasonable
stab at it, you might be interested to read my "Democratic
Cannibals" story which hit the K5 frontpage in March 2007.
Here, if you prefer, is my blog
version of the same thing but without the K5 arguments)
This dilemma may require a secondary debate (primarily among supporters
of the initial proposition) to determine how much the initial decision
"matters"; whether, if it matters, the dissenting minority
view can be accommodated and, if not, what sanctions the majority are
prepared to impose on the minority to enforce their will. This may,
in turn, entail the use of force by the majority to impose their will
on the minority and is precisely what the Libertarians (generally on
both Right and Left) are opposed to. It certainly cannot be ethically
defended (the minority view might, after all, be "right")
but it certainly can be pragmatically defended.
If you think there are no circumstances in which such majority "imposition
of will" can be defended, consider the social dilemma "which
side of the road shall we drive on?" Clearly we cannot afford even
1% dissenting behaviour on such a decision as it would have lethal consequences.
A "majority" in such circumstances is completely justified
in preventing the dissenters from acting in opposition to the majority
view, if only on the grounds of their own "self defence".
Note, in particular, that there is obviously no "ethically correct"
answer to which side we should drive on. It is neither good nor evil,
under any known religious or other moral code, to drive on one side
or the other. Nevertheless, we can make both a pragmatic and ethical
argument for 100% conformity in this instance - at least on the public
I was stunned (and pleasantly surprised) to find, more than a year
after I drafted the above paragraph, the following passage:
But the rule itself is not a moral rule. In England men drive
on the left-hand side of the road, in the United States and nearly
all parts of the Continent of Europe on the right. Moralicy has nothing
to say to this, except that those who use the roads ought to know
and observe the rule, whatever it be
which came from the introduction to "The History of English Law
Before The Time of Edward I" - written by Sir Frederick Pollock
and Frederic William Maitland in 1895. The whole thing (all 719 pages)
is available as a pdf here.
If that link breaks, here's my cached
version. It's good to know I'm following a well ploughed furrough! But
be that as it may...
Even such a clear cut case doesn't mean that we cannot accommodate
ANY part of the dissenter's action. For example, if they own a private
road for which they are able to restrict access to "dissenters
only" (or have good reason to know that only dissenters will ever
use) then there is no reasonable case the majority can make against
them driving on whichever side they prefer. It is only the shared PUBLIC
space where the majority can justify imposing their constraint. Nor
is there any excuse for ignoring the reasons for the dissent and trying
to reach a settlement which addresses those reasons, without conceding
the policy. For example - suppose the 99% vote for driving on the Left
because they already own Right Hand Drive vehicles whereas the dissenters
oppose driving on the Left because they own Left Hand Drive vehicles.
The rational compromise is that all parties should share the burden
and costs of replacing or adapting the dissenters' vehicles for driving
on the Left.
The Choice: Democracy or Totalitarianism
But the important point is that as soon as you have perceived
that there are such genuine social issues, where a clear cut decision
is required and dissenting action (as opposed to dissenting thought
or discussion) cannot be tolerated, then no decision making system other
than consensual democracy is consistent with individual autonomy - the
primal Liberty we are born with and the fundamental ethical validity
of making your own assessments of what is in your own best interests
- as well as your opinion about the wider social interest.
Consensual Democracy does not solve the problem but it seeks to minimise
it by exposing where the conflicts arise and provoking negotiations
about how those conflicts can be resolved with minimum dissent. If some
people have to be disappointed, and possibly coerced into conformity,
then it obviously makes - at least military if not ethical - sense to
ensure that the numbers of potential rebels is as small as possible.
It also makes sense, if the reason for dissent is that the policy will
damage the interests of the dissenters, that they should be compensated,
fairly, for their losses. It is these pragmatic angles which democracy,
in its purest form, has never attempted to grasp.
The aim of the Athenian democrat was also, as a preferred option, to
achieve consensus. Only when consensus could not be reached was it necessary
to find another way to reach a decision and the concept of voting appears
to be an Athenian invention designed to ensure numerical equality in
the event of having to make a decision in the absence of consensus:
"Voting was both a way of making explicit differences of
judgment and a procedural mechanism to legitimate a solution to pressing
The emphasis on "pressing matters" is of primary importance.
It implies, first, that most issues were decided by consensus and second,
that debates could and did take place on which no decision was reached
because there was no consensus. The absence of consensus was regarded
as an indication that no policy or change could be agreed upon and that,
unless the issue was a "pressing matter", no decision was
necessary. The modern question of "which side of the road shall
we drive on" is an example of a "pressing matter" in
that it would be positively lethal to leave it unresolved. But, in real
life, there are few such matters which MUST be resolved - i.e. a decision
must be imposed universally, even upon dissenters.
When such issues arose and consensus could not be reached, it was necessary
to invent a method of reaching a decision as fairly as possible. Voting
in this sense is an admission of failure (to reach consensus) and far
from being the standard way to make decisions, was only supposed to
be the compromise means to be used only for such "pressing matters".
It is also true that the Athenians accepted that, in the event of needing
to make a decision by voting, that even a simple majority of one would
be sufficient to carry the day.
But it is crucial to understand this in the context of Athenian democracy
in which nobody had the power to insist on a vote being taken at all.
In other words - and this is absolutely vital to an understanding of
true democracy - there would have had to have been at least one crucial
consensus prior to any such vote -viz that the matter was so urgent
that it had to be decided by voting. Thus too, there was an
ad hoc consensus that the result would be considered
fair even if the majority in favour of the end result was only a single
vote. This is not a situation which could or would ever have applied
to a contentious issue - because the primary consensus that a simple
majority was a fair way to decide the issue would not have arisen in
the first place.
Voting, in other words, should only ever be necessary and appropriate
where the issues at stake were in the realm of those we mentioned above
which could "fairly" be decided even by random means; necessary
but not contentious. The Athenian system was designed to make it impossible
to impose a contentious decision on an unwilling minority. Hence one
of the major charges laid against it - "Tyranny of the Majority"
- ought to be grossly misplaced. Unfortunately it isn't because
some of the weaknesses of their design rendered such tyranny still possible.
Ironically, part of the problem arose from the open debating process
and freedom of speech which Democracy invented. As is still true today,
free speech favours those with verbal dexterity and allows particularly
charismatic speakers to exert far more influence than their peers -
regardless of the merits or content of their speech. This allowed/allows
them to sway the "masses" and create the appearance of consensus
where none really existed. Hence, for example, the disgusting example
I mentioned in Part 1 of how the Assembly refused even to hear the case
for giving the Generals a fair trial. A few loudmouthed fanatics were
able to intimidate the opposition into silence.
This remains one of the true weaknesses of the original democratic
process in that although it nominally accords equal status to its participants
and they all have an equal right to speak, there are clearly vast differences
in the ability of people to address large numbers of fellow citizens
in open debate. The result is that we tend to hear only the loudest
and most confident speakers all the time. And, as we know to our cost
today, there is no correlation between such presentational skills and
That requires two significant amendments to Athenian style democracy,
the secret ballot and a new platform for debate. Fortunately the web
presents obvious opportunities for both but we'll deal with those issues
in part 5. But other than those enhancements, the aim of the Consensual
Democrat remains very similar to the original aims of our Athenian predecessors.
Our primary aim is to find a policy which not only addresses the relevant
issues and attracts support but also attracts minimal dissent. Unless
it is a non-contentious issue, we are not interested in merely achieving
simple majority support. Furthermore, if there is any remaining dissent,
it is our obligation to look for ways to accommodate it without compromising
the wishes and welfare of the majority.
For sundry political and philosophical reasons, this committment to
trying to achieve consensus and, at least, minimal dissent may or may
not appeal to modern "liberals" or even some of those who
think they are genuine democrats. My own reasons, however, for promoting
this approach are both principled and pragmatic. The principles are,
in a sense, what this whole book is about so I won't reiterate those
The pragmatic case for minimising and accommodating dissent is based
on two key problems. We've touched on the first (the need for substantial
numerical advantage in military terms if we ever have to coerce dissenters)
but this has become vastly more important since 9-11. There is now an
overriding requirement to minimise dissent in order to tackle various
security threats which I deal with, primarily, in Chapter 10. Second,
however, is the problem of Social Trust - the absence of which is a
root cause of the Conspiracy theories which we will be dealing with
in Part 4.
These problems are now, in my view, so grave that if we don't choose
the path of Consensual Democracy, we'll be stuck with the Platonist
solution. And they are obviously keen to consider only one other strategy
- and that is the increasingly Totalitarian control of everything we
do, say or even think. Rather than minimising dissent, the totalitarian
tries to suppress or repress it. I suspect that it is, by now, clear
to even the most wishful of thinkers, that the world in general is heading,
with increasing speed and determination in precisely that direction.
If you are keen to avert that impending disaster, I cannot insist that
you support my feeble efforts or those of others pushing in the same
direction. But I can insist that if you choose not to, you'd better
come up with an improved alternative pretty damn quick!
The obvious question: How do we minimise dissent? is one of
the main things we'll be discussing in Part 5.
Meanwhile, one of the alternatives already on offer is the philosophy
which underpins the politics of the American Libertarian Right - the
thoughts of Ludwig Von Mises which led to Ayn Rand's objectivism and
a rash of similar approaches. That's what we're going to look at next...