Jacek Bartyzel

Prof. Jacek Bartyzel - professor of social sciences, political philosopher, historian of political thought, theatrologist

Introducing a distinction between two types of critique of democracy, we are obliged to explain how we understand their meaning. Hence, by the substantive critique...-writes Prof. J. Bartyzel

we understand such a position, which finds in democracy the essential, ‘elementary’ evil being not only accidental and adventitious attribute, but lying within its very nature. This evil of democracy is then understood as irremovable and ‘irreformable’. Moreover, it is connected with the evil side of a human nature as well as allows this side to manifest itself and ‘leaves the field clear for it’. The consequence of this approach is the absolute rejection of democracy as the incurably corrupted political regime.

Respectively, by the accidental critique we understand the more optimistic approach, which discerns drawbacks of democracy, even serious ones (otherwise we could not call it a critique at all), but which all the same claims that these drawbacks are adventitious, accidental, contingent and usually resulting from the erroneous understanding of democracy or from its defective institutions. Therefore, these drawbacks are curable by the use of right remedies (modifications) regarding democracy itself or by supplementing democratic institutions with counterbalancing undemocratic ones (respectively, predemocratic, in historical terms).

From the above distinction it follows that:

1) articulations of the view that there is any ‘deficit of democracy’ (e.g. what is a common practice in the European Union) or any shortage of civic participation resulting with the ‘crisis of democracy’ as well as any intertwined convictions that ‘the cure for defects of democracy is more democracy’ – because they express a principally prodemocratic attitude that perceives democracy as essentially or per se a good thing being confused only because of some secondary reasons.

2) it is not a priori precluded that both kinds of the critique of democracy could coexist in the same thinkers or political-philosophical stream or position. However, such a situation seems logically possible only there where we f u n d a m e n t a l l y deal with a substantive critique and where it is the ‘basic intention’ of the critic. The presence of elements of the substantive critique in a thought leaning towards ‘reforming democracy’ would lead to shaking or doubting in this reformist attitude and in consequence would move it to the camp of antidemocrats intrasigeants. Therefore, their presence in this stream can be merely contingent, literally accidental, ‘scant’ and rather ‘unwitting’.

We also wish to prove the thesis that contemporarily in the common view on political issues and even in academic political science there is utterly mistaken recognition of positions which the antidemocrats of both types are situated in. It means that as ‘fundamentalist’ enemies of democracy are identified only these thinkers who actually are only the critics of accidental drawbacks of democracy, particularly opponents of only one, though essentially prevailing, type of democracy i.e. liberal democracy (or conversely, they are enemies of only plebeian ochlocracy) – whereas ‘true’, ‘uncompromising’, in-depth enemies of democracy (‘substantivists’) are essentially unnoticed. 

Substantive Critiques. The paradigm of the substantive critique of democracy was of course created by Plato. According to the Greek sage, the fundamental feature – nature – of democracy is persistent and incurable lack of truth (aletheia). Democracy – as Ryszard Legutko underlines – by ignoring, not knowing it or not wanting to recognise the truth, simultaneously perversely and irresponsibly ‘exploits’ the truth by nonchalantly using the general concepts such as virtue, piety, justice, nobleness etc. (and their opposites). Their sense is determined arbitrarily, depending on the hidden interests of persons who use these concepts what goes hand in hand with the absolutisation of partial truths. As Plato says, in democracy insolence is called good breeding, licence liberty, prodigality magnificence and shamelessness manly spirit. This manifestation of arbitrariness renders politics only a struggle for domination which in turn is served by the sophistic – because not focused on the search for truth and even deliberately denying its existence and possibility of its cognition – kind of rhetorical art of persuasion.

In democracy, there is not only the rule of deliberate falses (pseudos), but also the rule of hullabaloo and gibberish of any noncritical ‘whims’, views, opinions and common beliefs (doxai) elevated almost to the rank of the superior political virtue of democracy and its reason for pride (nowadays called ‘pluralism’). Hence, although in Plato’s typology of political regimes tyranny is even worse than democracy, transition from democracy to the regime based on truth seems even more diffi cult than in the case of tyranny since a tyrant in some circumstances can experience an illumination, open his eyes to the truth, convert and abase himself, whereas democrat’s overconfidence in the freedom to express any kind of views seems to eliminate this possibility. Glowing flamboyance of ‘a garment of many colors, embroidered with all kinds of hues’ or trumperies on a ‘bazaar of constitutions’ , which democracy is, poisons a soul by its seeming beauty and makes it blasé and indifferent to what is ‘closer to the Being’ and what requires an effort to overcome many steep slopes. The road to Eleusis from Pireus is only geographically shorter than from despotically ruled Syracuse.

Democracy, according to Plato, is especially the anthropological mistake, because it reflects a disorder in democratic state’s citizen soul (a ‘sophistic type of man’). In a democratic soul, the proper hierarchy of its powers is annulled and conversed: a reason does not rule via courage over appetites, but higher powers are subordinate to appetites and individual preferences. Plato depicts full of irony an image of a democratic man who to admonitions ‘that some pleasures arise from honorable and good desires, and others from those that are base, and that we ought to practise and esteem the one and control and subdue the others’, ‘shakes his head (…) and avers that they are all alike and to be equally esteemed’  and in consequence he ‘lives out his life in this fashion, day by day indulging the appetite of the day, now wine-bibbing and abandoning himself to the lascivious pleasing of the flute and again drinking only water and dieting; [561 D – B.P.] and at one time exercising his body, and sometimes idling and neglecting all things, and at another time seeming to occupy himself with philosophy. And frequently he goes in for politics and bounces up and says and does whatever enters his head. And if military men excite his emulation, thither he rushes, and if moneyed men, to that he turns, and there is no order or compulsion in his existence, but he calls this life of his the life of pleasure and freedom and happiness and [561 E – B.P.] cleaves to it to the end.’ The democratic kind of man is nothing more than Rorty’s ‘liberal ironist’ who uses the pleasures of the ‘Being’s lightness’. Democracy is also an epistemological error. It is a system dominated by the lowest form of cognition (sensitive cognition): ejkasija – i.e. thinking by images; this system is characteristic for the intellectual slaves chained with the shackles to the inner wall of the cave and therefore capable to see at most the shadows that crawl on it. Democrats, by their own fault, do not have an access to the cognition of the true being but at most to the reflections of concrete things – these from behind the first μταξυ, i.e. from the light of the fi re burning behind a rampart on which ‘jugglers’ (read: sophists) show their rhetorical tricks. It means that democracy does not have a status of ontological reality whatsoever: it ‘is’ a non-being. Of course, for Plato none of the real political regimes is being; only the ideal state has this status. Each of the empirically identifiable political re gimes is merely a part of being, although gradable. Some of them like monarchy or aristocracy are closer to the being, while the other are farther away; on this scale democracy occupies almost the farthest place from the being, right before dictatorship, i.e. a place where non-being becomes nothingness. In the strict sense, democracy is not because it lacks the truth, good and beauty. This Platonic deontologisation of democracy is a quintessence of a radically substantive critique of democracy. Actually, there are also threads of the accidental critique of democracy in Plato, such as the indication of its ‘class’ character (‘democracy (…) comes into being when the poor, winning the victory, put to death some of the other party, drive out others, and grant the rest of the citizens an equal share in both citizenship and offices’), chaos specific to it or finally – presented with humour and a satiric exaggeration – the disastrous consequences of what in this ‘youth’ regime is today called a ‘colourful tolerance’ such as an indulgence for the youngsters pranks, the lack of respect for the elders, running wild by domestic animals as well as the behaviour of the bitches which conduct themselves like their mistresses or the sense of dignity that horses and asses gain to such extent that they bump into everyone who meets them and who does not step aside. All these arguments are however secondary coming from the fundamental lack of truth, good and beauty. In Plato there is no room for ‘improving’ democracy, but only for ‘liberating’ oneself from it by replacing a democratic element by at least elements of any regime standing higher than democracy, even (otherwise poor) oligarchy: ‘And sometimes, I suppose, the democratic element retires before the oligarchical, some of its appetites having been destroyed and others expelled, and a sense of awe and reverence grows up in the young man’s soul and order is restored.’ A question of Aristotle’s anti-democratism is a more complex and ambiguous one. There are paragraphs in Aristotle which strength and principality are not weaker than in Plato’s critique, especially in the 4th book of Politics, where the emphasis is put on the irremovable lack of virtue and the rule of law in democracy. Aristotle identifi es democracy as the system of uncontrollable voluntarism of mob and demagogy in which not laws but decrees govern, hence that regime – which leads to the complete relaxation of polis – does not even deserve to be called order, but disorder; ‘for where the laws do not govern there is no constitution...

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