Plato taught that ‘forms’, which is to say substantial ideas, are more real than anything perceived by the senses.
It may be argued at a moment of levity that Christ came into the world partly to correct Plato by showing how the physical and metaphysical can be one.
Be that as it may, if Plato were able to look at today’s politics, he’d have to revise both his terminology and the underlying notions.
Forms have now shed substance and hence any link to reality – they are phantoms, delusions, make-believe.
Democracy is one such, but this isn’t the place to debate its intrinsic qualities. What bothers me is the status it has acquired in modern times, that of moral superiority to any other political arrangement.
Democracy is a method of government, better than some, worse than others. Both its pluses and minuses have been incessantly pondered since Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics, and these are still open to discussion.
What is to me beyond dispute is that democracy – as it has evolved – has no claim to being the most moral, just or effective way of organising public affairs.
Yet we in the West today have lost the ability to look beyond the outer shell of politics to see what kernel of substance hides underneath. We worship the form and not so much ignore the substance as forget that such a thing exists.
Hence we equate the democratic shell with the substance of freedom, justice and political virtue, maintaining that those lovely things hadn’t existed before people were empowered to cast their votes for the likes of Hitler, Allende, Putin, Lukashenko, Obama or Tony-Dave.
A dispassionate look at history will show, however, that everything of spiritual, cultural and moral value – including just political institutions – had been created in the West long before the advent of the Enlightenment and its political cutting edge, one-man-one-vote democracy.
The political path of the Enlightenment was signposted by four revolutions: English in the 17th century, American and French in the 18th, Russian in the 20th. Three of them culminated in regicide, that symbolic rite of passage to ‘enlightened’ modernity.
In all four instances the putatively oppressive reigns of Charles I, George III, Louis XVI and Nicholas II were replaced by infinitely more oppressive revolutionary Leviathans. In due course they either devoured or at least, as in the case of America, horrified their very midwives.
Thus John Adams, America’s second president, wrote in 1806: “I once thought our Constitution was a quasi or mixed government, but they had made it… a democracy.”
This, by his correct if belated judgement, had a disastrous effect not only on America but on the whole world. In 1811 Adams rued, “Did not the American Revolution produce the French Revolution? And did not the French Revolution produce all the calamities and desolation of the human race and the whole globe ever since?”
Since Adams had no benefit of our hindsight, he couldn’t fully admire the handiwork of post-Enlightenment modernity, with its concerted effort to wipe out every vestige of Christendom and replace it with either its opposite or, typically, its perversion.
Two calamitous wars (one of which was presumably fought ‘to make the world free for democracy’), two satanic regimes spawning dozens of similar ones, concentration camps, democide and genocide, hundreds of millions dead, tortured and starved to death – these are the sights that John Adams was spared.
He didn’t even witness the devastation of the Civil War, the second act of the American Enlightenment drama, in which the country suffered greater casualties than in all her other wars combined.
All of these were a direct result of modernity’s assault on Christendom, meaning Western civilisation. Unchecked democracy – whatever its theoretical value – has in practice been used as the political tip of modernity’s battering ram.
Now bereft of the traditional Western substance, the world looked at the available political options and cringed. It was faced with two Enlightenment offshoots: either nihillistic totalitarianism, a small elite ruling with no regard for law, or philistine democracy, a small elite ruling within some rapidly weakening but still partly extant restraints.
Both spelled destruction, but in the first instance it was instant, akin to that produced by an explosion, while in the second it was deferred, like that caused by slow if ever-accelerating erosion.
The West sighed and opted for the second, lesser evil. To assuage its sense of guilt over that submission to the vice slowly crushing its civilisation, the West then decided to let democracy mongers have a free rhetorical run.
Even intelligent Westerners began to pretend they believed the propaganda of democracy as the sole redemptive creed of modernity. The less intelligent ones, those constituting an overwhelming majority actually liked what they heard: they, Tom, Dick and Harry, had been blessed with the epiphany denied to the previous 100 generations of Western polity.
Quite apart from lethal long-term damage, the resulting totemistic worship of democracy as the political panacea for the whole world creates a vast potential for immediate disasters.
It leaves an opening for wicked regimes to pull a fast one by hiding behind a camouflage of democratic cardboard cutouts that cater to the foreign observers’ wishful thinking.
Such Potemkin villages don’t have to be real or even realistic – those seeking a democracy fix will get just as high on a placebo.
Thus, taking their cue from the ‘people’s democracies’ of yesteryear, numerous Third World tyrannies have learned that if they scream ‘democracy’ with histrionic conviction the West will pay them in coin – and if they don’t, the payment may come in the shape of drones and bombing raids.
The current troubles in the Middle East are a prime example of a theoretical folly leading to practical catastrophes. For it was in the name of democracy that American and British spivs unseated the unsavoury regimes that alone could maintain stability in the region.
“I’m afraid the bitter truth is Iraq and Libya were better off under the tyrants toppled by an arrogant and naive West,” writes Stephen Glover in The Mail. Those of us who knew this was the case since before the US-led coalition flexed its martial muscle in 2003, ask the inevitable but futile question:
Where was Stephen and his colleagues on the right, left and centre then? The answer is, castigating the bestial nature of Saddam, Gaddafi and Mubarak, appearing so much nastier in the light of goodness shone by Democracy (capitalisation implied).
Looking at a foreign regime, we’ve lost the ability to ask “Is it good?”. Instead we ask “Is it democratic?” and, if the answer is yes, we heave a sigh of relief.
Thus we leave ourselves open to disinformation blows raining on us from every direction. We – well, some of us – extol Putin’s kleptofascist clique because it was brought to power by seemingly free elections.
On similar grounds we accept that the frankly bolshevik nastiness of Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus is offset by the quasi-democratic elections that brought him to power – or that Putin’s puppet Yanukovych boasted the kind of legitimacy that’s denied to the people who overthrew him last year.
Democracy worship is a lazy man’s answer to sound political thought. That such people make up the bulk of the electorate is another powerful argument against our democracy-run-riot.
P.S. My new book, Democracy as a Neocon Trick, coming out this autumn, makes this argument without journalistic shortcuts. You can pre-order from roperpenberthy.co.uk