Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Democracy, Ancient and Modern

An essay long-completed and hardly awaited is slated to appear as the conclusion to a forthcoming edited book entitled Democratizations with MIT Press. Written when I was on the faculty at Princeton, it attempts to explain the transition for an older definition of democracy - drawn primarily from an Aristotelian conception of citizenship - to the new one based on rights and individual liberty and autonomy. What fascinated me in particular was the way in which Aristotle intimates that a true egalitarian democracy (absent a slave or laboring class who were barely free) would only be possible in a technological society, but that a technological society (such as that conceived by Francis Bacon) requires the rejection of the form of self-rule defended by Aristotle (namely, based upon an Aristotelian conception of nature that is rejected by Bacon). Thus, a basic conundrum arises in which a substantive egalitarian democracy of the sort imagined by Aristotle requires technological conditions that make such substantive egalitarian democracy untenable. At a deeper level, I aim to raise the question whether the democratic ideal of self-rule is possible in modernity. I attempt a modestly hopeful, if chastened, answer in the closing paragraphs.

I paste a few relevant pages of the essay, here, for those who would like a taste and can't wait for the appearance of the $37 paperback in March.


Democratic Prospects in Undemocratic Times
Patrick J. Deneen

The Paradox of “Democratizations”

The ancient conception of democracy [as shared self-rule of a small group of citizens] is rejected out of hand for its historical association with inequality, particularly the existence of slavery and the complete absence of a public role for women. Ancient democracy held a robust and committed conception of citizenship, but that conception relied extensively on the effective disenfranchisement of a large segment of the population. Modern democracy, by contrast, strips citizenship of its substantive expectations, and by making it primarily a matter of formal recognition, extends suffrage universally. As Wollheim formulates the difference, “in classical theory the people is identified with a section or part of the population, whereas in modern theory the people is identified with population as a whole” (1962, 72). However, if in practice ancient democracy required this radical division as a means for making possible political liberty for relatively few citizens, there is nothing endemic to ancient theory that makes this the case. Aristotle suggested that distinctions between citizen and slave would evaporate if the work of “mere life”-–basic survival-–could be performed by mechanized “tools”: “For suppose that each tool could complete its work either by being told to do so or because it perceived what was to be done in advance...”--–in which case “managers need not assistants or masters need not slaves” (Aristotle, 1253a-1254a). Aristotle promptly admitted that such a scenario was more the fancy of poets than remotely within the power of realization within Hellenic civilization. But the larger point remains: inequalities marking ancient democracy were the result of material circumstance, not a fundamental failing of ancient political theory.

Modern theory solves the problem by releasing humankind from restraints that formerly pointed humans away from the domination of nature. Francis Bacon inaugurated the tradition aimed at providing “relief to the human estate,” promoting the useful arts and sciences as the handmaiden of modern politics, thus unleashing at once creative energies hitherto unseen and a transformation of nature breathtaking in its thoroughness (Bacon, 2001 [1605]; White, 1968). Yet herein lies the paradox of “democratizations”: if the modern project aimed at the “conquest of nature” makes possible those very material conditions that Aristotle fantasized might make the realization of universal civic equality possible, those very conditions appear to require a fundamental transformation of philosophy that in fact points people away from the ancient conception of civic equality and shared rule. The selfsame argument that emphasizes the priority of individual self-interest, the pursuit of material goods without limit, and the elevation of private over public goods, at once promotes the very material conditions imagined by Aristotle and the poets that might emancipate people from brute drudgery. Yet, at the same time, this philosophy also undermines the democratic beliefs that at base inspired the ancients’ fantasy of “tools” that could relieve human drudgery in the first place. In order to realize the conditions that might make ancient democratic forms universally possible, history suggests that one must develop an alternative philosophy aimed at mastery of nature that, in effect, makes the realization of robust democracy implausible if not impossible.

In light of this recognition, it’s likely that there is no plausible likelihood of “democratizations.” The complexity and interdependence of modern peoples, the massive growth in world population, the inability of most contemporary democratic citizens to rely extensively on their own economic products, makes even the most well-intentioned efforts to instantiate ancient conceptions of democracy frightful to contemplate, with outcomes more likely to resemble the French terror than a beatific vision. Yet the fact remains that, at least in the realm of theory, one can envision a form of democracy distinctive from the modern form, and begin more clearly to see the radical insufficiencies of modern democracy not only at the fringes of social policy, but on democratic grounds. Ancient political theory offers a corrective principle which points to the need for attentiveness to political democracy itself, rather than to the lip service to paid its pale shadow of economic choice and personal satisfaction. Ancient conceptions remind us of the nobility of rule and an even greater majesty of assent to rule (given that such assent may be against our immediately perceived “self-interest”), of those first grounds for democracy involving ruling and being ruled, of the civic whole that precedes the parts. These ancient teachings afford an encounter with a justification of democracy on the basis of human equality rather than as a utilitarian arrangement that best suits the modern project of nature’s domination and the belief that democracy is the fulfillment of the misguided claim “to live as one likes” (Aristotle, 1317b).

Prospects for Democracy in Undemocratic Times

In these overly self-congratulatory of democratic times, the prospects for democracy according to its more ancient understanding are meager if not moribund. The most ardent proponents of democracy in contemporary times largely eschew such alternative democratic commitments. On the Right, many equate democracy with the opening of markets and the continued growth of human mastery over nature. On the Left, many embrace non-economic liberation as the sine qua non of democracy, equating democracy wholly with personal autonomy in all of its forms, yet maintain distrust of economic libertarianism even as many of the manifold forms of personal autonomy that it recommends rest extensively upon the material advances and leisure afforded by modern economics. While the Left expresses more explicit commitments to political forms of democracy than the more economics-oriented Right, more often than not such civil devotions are manifested by calls for participation in movements and dramatic democratic “action,” evincing impatience for the hard discipline and even inglorious grind of daily democratic attentiveness (Mansbridge, 1986; Kelly, 2001). Perhaps more significantly, both the Right and Left are wedded to the project of globalization, whatever their differences over its specific character.

A conception of democracy that focuses instead on citizenship--not merely formal extension of electoral rights, but substantive commitments to shared civic life and public deliberation as a daily undertaking--finds less obvious support in these purportedly democratic times. Modern peoples schooled in a conception of democracy that recommends, above all, individual satisfaction and likely to equate the word “politics” with the distant cynical exploitation and manipulation of interests, are hardly disposed to embrace a conception of democracy that stresses discipline, sacrifice, and the willingness to reconsider one’s apparent interests in the light of the good of the polity. The very absurdity of the notion that there can be a single “good” of a polity of such vastness and overwhelming anonymity should already reveal to us the utterly foreign, even incomprehensible, tenor of such a conception of civic democracy.

At the same time, one must marvel at the near-universal embrace of democracy and the widespread ambition to effect various “democratizations” throughout the globe. Belief in the promise of democracy, even in these times of pallid democratic forms, nevertheless courses deep. Underlying modern democracy’s commitments to rights-based citizenship, jurisprudential political activity, representative democratic forms, and its recommendation of individual self-concern, nevertheless may lurk a devotion to democracy in its more robust civic conception.

This possibility was disclosed particularly in the United States on September 11, 2001 and during the days that followed. On that day, fanatics opposed to democracy flew above the skies of New York City and Washington D.C. searching for suitable targets, the destruction of which would symbolize their hatred of and momentary triumph in particular over modern democratic forms. In New York City, they chose two towering skyscrapers, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. In Washington D.C., they targeted the Pentagon. In short, they set their sights on America as “military-industrial complex,” that entity against which President Dwight Eisenhower had warned America becoming in his Farewell Address of 1961. The attackers had concluded that America manifested the complete triumph of modern forms of democracy expressed through economic expansion and military domination, but for the fact that they altogether overlooked the nobler democratic commitments that also mark the civilization they despised.

Were one to have asked any average American what structures or symbols best represented their own self-conception of America in those two cities on September 10, 2001, it’s doubtful many would have named the buildings that were attacked on the following day. Instead, one modestly speculates that most would have named, in New York City, the Statue of Liberty; and in Washington D.C., the Capitol, the White House, or possibly the Lincoln Memorial. That many would have chosen these political monuments over financial and military structures as the paramount symbols of their nation is all the more noteworthy given that many Americans have been tutored to think of democracy as a system allowing for the fullest expression of personal preference and may in many cases lack a strong admiration for politics in its daily incarnation. The overwhelming and spontaneous willingness to donate blood, time, and treasure especially for those victims in New York City--a place that many throughout the country had been rumored to love to hate before September 11--momentarily revealed the residue of civic commitments persist in spite of modern democracy’s prevailing commitments to self-satisfaction. Like a palimpsest, the ancient devotions of democracy--shared political equality and a belief in our linked common fates--lingers below the surface of its contemporary definitions, leaving those more robust civic forms legible for those with the willingness and patience to discern their presence and to make their subdued teaching more visible amid the more obvious manifestations of modern democracy.

Tocqueville, more explicitly than others, discerned this dual nature of democracy in modern times. He noted that Americans tended to justify their actions in terms of self-interest, even when their motivations were considerably more selfless than they admitted. He noted that modern democrats – captured by the influence of liberal and individualist philosophy and capable solely of expressing even their noblest actions in the cramped language of self-interest – often “would rather do more honor to their philosophy than to themselves” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch.8, 502). Yet he worried that actual motivations eventually would conform to the explicit language in which those motivations were framed and justified, eventually undermining the nobler motivations of the people in favor of their philosophic claims.

Still, Tocqueville also hoped that even such stated self-interest could be moderated through participation in democratic politics itself. He observed that citizens might understand their initial engagement in political activity as a means of advancing their apparent self-interest, but by means of the very interaction with other citizens, and by exposure to countervailing concerns, varying backgrounds, and alternative proposals, democratic politics itself leads to the possibility that each citizen’s “heart is enlarged” (2000 [1840], v. 2, pt. 2, ch. 5, 490). Above all, democracy might flourish where there persists a commitment to cultivating “the arts of association”--those formal and informal political activities by which individuals are transformed into citizens and in virtue of which a conception of the common good could be achieved through the dynamic interaction among democratic citizens.
Tocqueville predicted the rise of “individualism” and the decline of active civil life. But more hopeful aspects of his analysis--a hopefulness that was momentarily justified in the civic response to the terrorist attacks--suggests that perhaps multiple forms of “democratization” are possible after all. Tocqueville maintained such hope in spite of the formidable paradox that exists at the core of modern democracy--that is, the embrace of modern forms of material progress and emphasis on economic freedom which make possible the liberation from the drudgery of “mere life” also simultaneously undermines our capacity to acknowledge a common civic purpose and shared fate. For even contemporary democratic faith rests most fundamentally on a belief in democracy’s potential and in the possibility of a political whole that transcends the many parts that comprise it. Like any faith, it offers grounds and inspires justification for greater humility--in this instance, for a form of civic humility that points to the fact that democracy is neither easy nor automatic, but rather requires extensive, even heroic civic commitments. While commentators from William James to Jean Bethke Elshtain have insisted that democracy is “on trial,” perhaps we do better instead to conceive democracy as a trial (James, 1897; Elshtain, 1995). According to its ancient conception, democracy’s trial takes the form of hard discipline. It involves the cultivation of civic capacities of rule and being ruled as well as the restraint of immediate self-interest. It requires the hard task of discerning a common purpose underlying our manifold interests. In its modern form, democracy’s trial inheres in a double temptation: the inclination to lose sight of democracy’s basic commitment to political self-rule, and its tendency to surrender wholly to its explicit foundation on self-interest. Because of its citizens increasing inability to resist these temptations, and the absence of statesmen and leaders who remind them of these ancient teachings, democracy is increasingly imperiled. By attending to the fragility of democracy in spite of its apparent powerful and reigning modern forms, we can again recognize democracy to be a shared civic project and an activity rather than a set of institutions, and thus carve out even a small space for the possibility of democratizations in these otherwise undemocratic times.

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Anonymous said...

Thank you for making this ancient/modern distinction. A very good post. I was surprised, however, not to see Neil Postman in the list of works cited.

Patrick Deneen said...

Justin: I well could have. I admire Postman's work, as should be obvious from much of what I write. I may not have cited him in this piece, but his thought has seeped into much of my own thinking.