Democracy: a serious reply to a serious reader

The reader, a London vicar, writes, ‘I’ve enjoyed looking at your blog. Isn’t there a fundamental incompatibility between an aristocratic hierarchical society and one based on capitalism? Which do you now prefer? Would you extend your principle of taxation and the right to vote to impunity from military service without the right to vote?’

These are interesting questions. The first one is actually somewhat easier, if calling for a longer reply. There is an incompatibility, but I don’t think it’s either fundamental or unsolvable. Capitalist economy definitely abhors a rigid, or even rigid-ish, social structure, while an aristocratic society thrives on it. The answer lies first in the relative weight of the economy in the life of society and, second, the amount of elasticity in the hierarchy.

When the economy becomes the be-all and end-all of society, it comes with an awful price tag — and, as we are witnessing now, the price will be ultimately exacted on the economy itself. A society defined by consumption is indeed consumptive. That sitiuation didn’t exist in Britain during her most economically dynamic century, the 19th. And, as this reader knows better than I do, the main reason is simple: Jesus Christ hadn’t yet become a superstar. Christianity, as long as it keeps not just its form but also its content, puts brakes on economic totalitarianism by communicating in no uncertain terms that, though money may be important, it can’t be all-important. Though our life on earth is significant in itself, it’s also preparation for life in heaven. In that sense, our workaday lives should imitate the perfect balance between the transient and transcendent one finds in the person of Jesus Christ. Unlike materialists, we don’t think of life strictly in economic terms. Unlike Bhuddists, we don’t neglect the physical world. And unlike gnostics of all shades, we don’t think the outside world is evil.

England struck the balance in the 19th century, proving that an aristocratic society ruled by law can accommodate aggressive capitalism — partly because such a society, unlike out-and-out democracies, isn’t an ideological contrivance. It developed organically over 1,500 years or longer. With England (or other monarchies of old standing) one can’t pinpoint the founding of her state to any date or event. We all know exactly when Germany, Soviet Russia, Israel or the USA came into existence. With England, we don’t. That’s why the argument put forth by both Burke and de Maistre rings true: as the origins of an organic state disappear into the haze of the past, we might as well accept its divine descent.

One immediate spiritual and social effect of Christianity was the internalisation of man, the privatisation of the spirit. From that followed a man’s shift from the public square into his own house or chapel. Such a man lost the all-abiding interest in politics demanded by the Hellenic world — and now mandated by our democracies. Mediaeval Christians were happy to focus on their God and their family, letting the bellicose paladins boss things in the capital. The princes, in their turn, left the people pretty much alone — they were neither able nor willing to interfere with the familial organisation around which people’s lives revolved: guild, parish, village commune, township and of course what we now call extended family. Thus aristocracy, and by inference small government, is the most natural form of government in the West (a term I use interchangeably with Christendom in any other than the purely geographic sense).

For as long as the initial pulse shot into our body politic by Christianity didn’t attenuate, aristocratic society could handle capitalism with few problems. The society was not only hierarchical, but also mobile — witness the fact that only about 1% of British peerages predate the 19th century. Once that pulse died away, the square peg of the economy had to be jammed into the round hole left by Christianity. That was never going to succeed, and it hasn’t. What this proves, I think, is that there is no contradiction between the aristocratic society of Christendom and capitalism. There is, however, a glaring one between the democratic contrivances of modernity and Godless capitalism. Sooner or later, the resulting spiritual deficit will not only destroy our culture, family and social dynamics, but it’ll have exactly the same effect on the economy. As Aristotle put it, a society that pursues wealth rather than virtue will end up using this wealth against itself.

Universal franchise ipso facto means universal conscription at war time. If a mediaeval prince had to beg his vassals to spare a few soldiers, today’s democrats can conscript the whole population — and severely punish those who resist. This, as much as technological advances, accounts for the inordinate casualties of modern wars. The ‘progressive’ 20th century boasts somewhere between 300 and 500 million victims, half of them in wars — more than all other centuries of recorded history combined.

But I don’t think taxation comes into play at all. An 18-year-old footballer can play for a top club, but he can’t be its manager. By the same token, it takes a sage and experienced voter to manage his country (which enfranchised citizens do indirectly). Statistically, those under 25 can’t be confidently predicted to fall into that categority. So they shouldn’t vote. However, the qualities required for warfare aren’t the same as those without which responsible voting would be impossible. As anyone walking the streets of south London will tell, an 18-year-old is perfectly capable of killing, even if he’s unable to get a job and therefore pay taxes.

To summarise: one has to be a citizen to serve in the army, and a taxpayer to vote, but one neither has to have the vote nor to pay taxes to be a citizen. One-man-one-vote isn’t a sine qua non for a society of citizens — and neither is it the sole possible alternative to tyranny. The opposite belief made its historical entrance only in the 20th century, not coincidentally the most murderous period of history.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *