Democracies and democracies

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary,

Democracies are defined as follows;

1a : government by the people; especially : rule of the majority
b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

2: a political unit that has a democratic government

3: capitalized the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the US

  • from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy
  • —C. M. Roberts

4: the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority.

We like to think, that under these conditions, freedom, as we understand it in our Western culture, should be guarantied. At least according to the majorities’ taste. So far it seems the best possible way, a kind of ecological, self-balanced system. But then, why is it that a government elected by the people can sometimes be so close to a tyranny?

I have partial answers, because reality is so complex! But I like the vision of a guy called Jacob Leib Talmon (Hebrew: יעקב טלמון; June 14, 1916 – June 16, 1980) a Professor of Modern History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he wrote about the origins of something he called “Totalitarian democracies”. The most evident sign of a totalitarian democracy, he says, is the fact that “it treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of political action.” So that the space for personal decisions is continuously narrowed, making politics (this means the ideas that sustain a particular government) reign supreme. Politics becomes the new religion and it could very well be seen as the new “opium of the people.”

The liberal democracies and totalitarian ones have some essential differences  that lie in their attitude to politics. On one hand, the liberal assumes politics to be a matter of trial and error, and regards political systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of politics.

The totalitarian, on the other hand, are based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth. It is pregnated of “political Messianism” in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which men are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive. A kind of “übermentcsh” status. Sounds familiar?

But both schools affirms the supreme value of liberty. But whereas one finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realized only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose. As we said Liberal democrats believe that in the absence of coercion men and society may one day reach through a process of trial and error a state of ideal harmony. In the case of totalitarian democracy, this state is precisely defined, and is treated as a matter of immediate urgency, a challenge for direct action, an imminent event.

The problem that arises for totalitarian democracy, and which is one of the main subjects, may be called the paradox of freedom. Is human freedom compatible with an exclusive pattern of social existence, even if this pattern aims at the maximum of social justice and security? The paradox of totalitarian democracy is in its insistence that they are compatible. The purpose it proclaims is never presented as an absolute idea, external and prior to man. It is thought to be immanent in man’s reason and will, to constitute the fullest satisfaction of his true interest, and to be the guarantee of his freedom. This is the reason why the extreme forms of popular sovereignty became the essential concomitant of this absolute purpose. In so far as they are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced or intimidated into conforming, without any real violation of the democratic principle being involved. In the proper conditions, it is held, the conflict between spontaneity and duty would disappear, and with it the need for coercion. The practical question is, of course, whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony, or because all opponents have been eliminated.

About the Author
Alex is a Clinical Psychologist, a peace worker, a writer, a music composer and artist. She has lived in New York, England, Argentina, Italy, Amsterdam and the Middle East.