In most people’s minds, totalitarianism and democracy are antonyms. Yet the two can happily coexist not only on the same planet but also in the same country. To understand this, we should focus on the essence of totalitarianism, not its incidental manifestations, such as violence.
For elected leaders are also capable of violent oppression. Just look at the democratically elected Hitler, Perón, Mugabe, Putin, Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad and Macîas Nguema (who gratefully murdered a third of the population of Equatorial Guinea that had voted him in).
Conversely, if we define the term rigorously, even a non-violent democracy can be totalitarian. The term should properly apply to any political system that a) concentrates all power within a small elite, b) removes all checks and balances on this power, c) leaves people no viable choice, d) relies on populist brainwashing to change people’s views and personalities, f) reliably elevates to government those unfit to govern.
Each one of these telltale signs is amply observable in today’s Britain and most other so-called democratic states. They all show the dangers resident in a democracy whose power is unchecked by other estates.
The benefits of unchecked democracy are held to be self-evident, which is just as well for they would be impossible to prove either theoretically or empirically. Yet in traditional Western thought even God was regarded as a hypothesis awaiting philosophical and evidential proof. As democracy is not divine, one feels so much more justified in holding it to scrutiny.
First it is important to strip unlimited democracy of its non-partisan mask. Unlike the limited democracies of Hellenic antiquity and Western polity, universal suffrage is a radical idea that came to the fore after man was pronounced to be good to begin with and, what is more, infinitely perfectible.
It followed ineluctably that all good and further improvable people were equally qualified to choose their leaders and govern themselves. Once Americans elevated universal suffrage to secular sainthood, and spread this fideistic notion high and wide, opposition to it became impossible in the West.
But in reality the promise of democracy becomes larcenous when democracy is unchecked by the power of other estates. By atomising the vote into millions of particles, democracy renders each individual vote meaningless. What has any weight at all is an aggregate of votes, a faceless bloc. Consequently, political success in democracies depends not on any talent for statesmanship, but on the ability to put such blocs together.
This has little to do with statesmanship. Coming to the fore instead are a knack for demagoguery, photogenic appearance, absence of principles, ability to lie convincingly, selfishness and an unquenchable thirst for power at any cost.
Tocqueville warned against this with his usual prescience: ‘I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.’ He formed this ideas of American democracy at the time of Jefferson, Adams and Madison, to name but a few. One wonders what Tocqueville would say today, observing our politicians in action. He would certainly feel that what has been realised is not his prophesies but his nightmares.
The ostensibly democratic, but in fact neo-totalitarian, state acquires more power over the individual than any monarch who ruled by divine right ever had. French subjects, for example, were shielded from Louis XIV by many layers of local government, and the Sun King wielded more power over his loftiest courtiers than over the lowliest peasants. It would not have occurred to him to tax his subjects at 75 percent, something that comes naturally to France’s democratic leaders.
Modern democracy, on the other hand, transfers power from the periphery to the centre, where the small elite reigns supreme. This ever-increasing centralisation reflects a deep trend, that of reversing two thousand years of Christendom and reverting to paganism.
People have been hollowed out, their metaphysical certitudes removed, and the resulting vacuum filled with idols, such as unchecked democracy. Fallen by the wayside is trust in the traditional localism of Christendom. Unceasing and uncontested brainwashing has replaced it with knee-jerk adulation of central government, to which people are taught to ascribe redemptive powers. In this sense all modern states are totalitarian, for they seek control over areas hitherto seen as being off-limits.
Socialism and communism, modernity’s other redemptive creeds, are unchecked democracy’s first cousins. Socialism is democracy with logic; communism is socialism with nerve. All such systems originally spring from a characteristic liberal ignorance of, and contempt for, human nature – a condition disguised by incessant encomiums on the goodness of man.
Behind this smokescreen it is easy to tell lies about democracy, such as that it makes the world more secure. In fact, in the last 100 years, when unchecked democracy achieved the PR status of the only possible alternative to tyranny, hundreds of millions have died violent deaths.
Universal suffrage implies universal military service, a fact that is at least as responsible as technological advances for the amount of blood spilled in modern wars. If medieval kings had to beg their vassals to spare a few men for the army, today’s democracies can conscript the entire population if they so wish, and prosecute anyone who refuses to join up.
Nor does unchecked democracy provide stability. Quite the opposite, one can argue that the democratic body politic carries the gene of instability, even as it is forever plagued by the demons of ad infinitum centralisation. Here too, this most factional of political systems suffers from the heredity of its liberal mother and radical father.
That is why democracy infinitely gravitates towards social democracy (a euphemism for socialism which in itself is a euphemism for the dictatorship of the big state), leaving little room for conservatism, which is a popular but imprecise word for traditional Western politics.
Looking at the three major European democracies of today, Britain, France and Germany, it would be hard to argue that democracy is a factor of political stability. In a mere century, Britain has gone from being a constitutional monarchy to being a crypto-republican province of the EU; France, from being an international power to being first a part of Germany and then her junior partner; and Germany – well, we all know about her.
Britain should not find herself in this company for she was the first country to activate an effective system of checks and balances – something that was often preached but never practised on the continent. The intellectual line of descent here leads from Plato and Aristotle to Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Burke and Tocqueville. They all knew that only checks and balances could prevent a democracy from turning into what Tocqueville called ‘tyranny of the majority’.
Burke said something similar earlier: ‘The tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny.’ Another aphorist, Lord Acton, admittedly armed with the benefit of Burke’s and Tocqueville’s earlier insights, put his finger on the problem: the main conflict during the French Revolution, he wrote, was ‘a great struggle between democracy and liberty,’ thus implying that the two terms so often uttered in the same breath just might be mutually exclusive.
If they came back, they would see their worst fears coming to fruition in today’s West. And though the word ‘totalitarian’ was a later coinage, they would probably find it useful to describe our democracy run riot.