The Problem of Democracy
London: Arktos, 2011
Alain de Benoist is a name readers are likely to have come across in these circles, being a founder and leading figure of the Nouvelle Droite—the European New Right—as well as head of the French think tank GRECE. Sadly. This French philosopher’s vast output—50 books, 2,000 essays—has remained largely unavailable in the Anglosphere, due to a lack of English translations. This is something that Arktos has begun to rectify. The Problem of Democracy (originally, Démocratie: Le Problème, first published 26 years ago) is the first book-length political work to appear in English, and the first of a series of volumes to appear on the aforementioned imprint.
De Benoist is an astonishingly erudite and penetrating thinker, yet, like many brilliant minds, and quite unlike his pretentious and intellectually bankrupt counterparts on the Left, he is able to write with singular clarity and economy. This tome offers an eloquent example: De Benoist examines the theory and practice of democracy, analysing it from every angle you ever thought and never thought of and would have never imagined, demystifying and getting right down to the core of the matter, and illuminating the reader with surprising insights, all in a slender volume of just over 100 pages. How many authors do you know who can do that with profundity and academic rigour in such a compressed space and without producing incomprehensibly compacted prose? Homi K. Bhabha could learn a thing or two from this edition.
The fact is that this book is a lot better than it looks. With democracy not being exactly the height of fashion around these parts, and with the cover being rather opaque and impersonal, one imagines that this is going to be a slow and boring read. Yet the opposite is the case: Yes, De Benoist tells the reader much that he already knew or suspected about modern Western democracies; but he also uncovers a mass of otherwise obscure yet crucial realities that show exactly how much of a charade our governments are, and how modern citizens have been reduced to idiocy—in the classical sense of the word. The sections dealing with the deficiencies of modern liberal democracies are truly fascinating, even for readers who think they know everything there is to know on the topic.
De Benoist begins by problematising this taken-for-granted term, democracy, and by showing that it is, and has been, used very loosely, cynically, imprecisely, disingenuously, and outright deceptively, to describe just about any system of government, from direct democracies to totalitarian communist regimes. To his mind, only the democracy of Athens in ancient Greece can be genuinely referred to as a democracy: after all, those who invented it best know what it was about.
Judged against this standard, modern democracies fail to meet the required definition—they are something else, but not democracies.
De Benoist also demonstrates that democracy is not synonymous with liberalism, elections, or even freedom. In fact, often the opposite is the case: modern elections are effectively a delegation—and therefore an abdication—of sovereignty, the anointment of a self-perpetuating class of professional politicians who then do whatever they like, with complete impunity.
De Benoist’s main thesis is that genuine democracy can only exist in a community with shared values and common historical ties. A secondary thesis is that the larger the political unit, the stronger the type of government needed to hold it together. The liberal democracies of the West, governing over vast multicultural multitudes, are necessarily repressive and tend increasingly towards totalitarianism. As it happens, this is a point I made in a certain novel:
a homogeneous society [is] easier to legislate for because people shared a concrete set of values; a highly heterogeneous society require[s] mountains of legislation, regulating every aspect of the individual’s life, as well as a bloated and highly complex bureaucracy, designed to invent it, record it, expand it, refine it, and enforce it, alongside an omniscient surveillance apparatus, to constantly monitor behaviour and report non-conformity.Such conditions, I argued, make it preferable to have
strict controls on who was allowed to come and settle in Europe, rather than strict controls on what people who lived in Europe were allowed to say, write, read, watch, think, or publish, what organisations they were allowed to belong to, what political parties they were allowed to vote for, what music they were allowed to listen to, and what personal associations they were allowed to maintain, in order to keep the chanko stew in the social pressure cooker from exploding.Surprisingly, De Benoist also posits that a genuine democracy is elitist, not egalitarian. Equality exists among citizens before the law, and in such a system, citizens are given equal opportunities to be unequal. Democracy does not assume natural equality. What is more, a genuine democracy, according to De Benoist, is designed to offer elite turnover, the idea being that if citizens are given equal opportunities to be unequal, then each gets what he deserves, and the best elements rise to the top while the worst sink to the bottom.
Thus De Benoist argues for a fundamentalist understanding of democracy, and a return to the model of Antiquity, albeit adapted to modern times (he offers some suggestions as to how this may be done). This exemplifies perfectly how one can be radical while being traditional.
In sum, this slender volume can be read very profitably and is worth recommending to anybody, irrespective on their love or hatred for democracy—because they are, in fact, so similar in their criticisms, De Benoist has something here for supporters and detractors alike. The Problem of Democracy offers plenty of ammunition for anybody wanting to engage conventionally thinking citizens in thought-provoking debate.
A book like this should be in standard political science reading lists in all Western universities.