From independence, freedom and truth

Politics

The decadence of democracy

Fernando del Pino Calvo Sotelo

May 19, 2016

As Bernard of Chartres said in the 12th century, we truly are “dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants”. In an era such as that in which we live, so smug and convinced of our role as zenith of civilization (a belief common to all periods of decadence in History), it is timely to revisit, respectfully and attentively, the lessons which the giants of the past can teach us.

Over 2,300 years ago Aristotle described the decadence of the existing democracies so precisely that it leads us to wonder whether in this field we have truly made any headway since his day. His political work was written as his life was coming to an end, when his astounding intelligence was paralleled by the wisdom that only emerges from observation, silence, meditation and serenity (conditions which are proscribed by today’s society), and from a life centered on the quest for truth. The Stagirite was fully aware of the utter fragility of democracy, the conservation and welfare of which were far from ensured (rather the contrary), and brought to light the cancer which gave rise to its decline.

Aristotle said that the most important elements to carefully nurture and retain democracy are the rule of law and legal certainty: “there is nothing which should be more jealously maintained that the spirit of obedience to law”. Democracy begins to crumble when the law is not upheld, when it is shamelessly implemented in different ways to different individuals depending on political interest, when lynchings (today carried out in the media) replace the presumption of innocence or when the applause or catcalls of the masses become more important than legal guarantees. This is also true when the law is constantly modified at the will of those who rule, and when these same rulers are the first to break the law in full impunity. The repetition of such behaviors “creeps in unperceived and at last ruins the state, just as the constant recurrence of small expenses in time eats up a fortune”.

Aristotle also raised a warning regarding the excessive duration of positions of power: “when public office is held for short periods of time it is not as easy to cause harm as when it is held for lengthy periods (….), since power corrupts”. We may thereby deduce the fundamental importance of constraining the real power of those who hold it by limiting terms in office, insisting on the true division of powers, and the establishment of checks and balances, including nowadays a press that not only is free, but which also happens to wish to be free. Naturally, an excessive length of time in office and disproportionate power encourage the “enrichment of those who hold public positions”, which was a problem millennia in the past, and continues to be one today.

The Greek sage cautioned against the ultimate symptom of the breakdown of democracy: the proliferation of demagogues. Our dictionary indeed defines demagoguery as the “degeneration of democracy in that politicians, by means of concessions and flattery towards the most basic feelings of citizens, attempt to achieve or retain power” (a nice definition of the Welfare State, by the way).

Demagogues “only spring up where, not the law, but the multitude, have supreme power”. “Those who flatter the people” never call upon mankind’s noblest feelings but rather attempt to promote its worst ones: fear, envy, hate, covetousness of others’ goods, and rage, which clouds reason and fosters manipulation of the masses. Aristotle quotes examples of Greek polis in which the demagogues “brought about the destruction of democracy”, to which end “it sufficed to win the trust of the people and, in order to do so, it was enough to declare themselves enemies of the rich”. Indeed, in 323 BCE and in the 21st century alike, the unmistakable spoor of the demagogue is embodied in his “constant attacks on the rich”, always a minority and in all cases the most basic and simplistic of targets. Finally, today’s demagogues have found a lode in denouncing some of the more evident lies of that plague of our times known as political correctness, not due to their interest in the truth – a concept which to them is alien –, but in the attempt to appear as the champions of a new era.

Democracy, once it takes ill, progressively becomes the tyranny of a majority transformed into a deity, a majority accountable to no one or anything. Passion replaces reason, the satisfaction of all desires ousts virtue, and the swinging pendulum of public opinion and fashion shape the very concept of truth and justice. Thus, once they have been deprived of their individual rights, minorities are left defenseless, helpless, at the mercy of the capricious will of the 51%. The law supposed to prevent the majority from abusing its power, a law necessarily based and framed on immutable norms arising from Natural Law, vanishes, and is replaced by an impostor known as legislation, constantly modified by the fickle feelings of the majority, expanded with ever growing complexity and arbitrariness, and fully separated from that which is good and from truth and justice, to which it does not feel beholden.

So now, when you hear the more radical demagogues, those secret lovers of violence, fan the flames of envy, rage or hate in the name of the people, or of justice, or of freedom (precisely that which they long to destroy), recall the serene voice of the giants of the past warning us of the threat which looms upon us. Also remember that we have reached this point because of the other demagogues, those who for years have constantly flattered the citizenry whom they absolve of all responsibility, whom they try to numb by means of promises of endless rights and non-existent obligations, a citizenry which, they claim, is all-deserving, is never mistaken and does not need to work in order to earn a living. And last, to tell the whole truth, the final responsibility lies on ourselves, the citizens: we believed the lie because it was convenient for us to believe it. Wake up and arise, break the spell and shake off the yoke, for the decadence of the West is on the path of turning democracy into the enemy of freedom, once again.

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