Why I am hardly democratic
by Vladimir Volkoff
Translated by Roberto Hope from the Spanish translation of
Pourquoi je suis moyennement démocrate. (éditions du Rocher, 2002)
For aesthetic reasons.Certainly, the idea of democracy, this gloomy wasteland where 1=1=1=1 and so on to infinity, does not aesthetically seduce me.
I prefer more hierarchical, more colorful, more architectural structures.
But I just want to talk about the aesthetic balance of democracies as compared with other types of regimes.
Of course, I know quite well that those beautiful Greek temples were built in a period known as democratic, that there are far from negligible Swiss paintings and that the American skyscrapers could be considered works of art. But I cannot stop believing that art results from two things, on the one hand, it is a luxury and, on the other, it is a passionate search for truth. Now, modern democracy puritanically disapproves of luxury on the one hand and, on the other, considers that there is as much truth in democracy itself as humanity requires, with which it feels comfortable in the aesthetic domain.
Look at France, to which the Ancien Regime bequeathed the place Vendôme and the New one, Beaubourg; the Old one, the Palais-Royal; the New one, the Buren columns, the Old one. the Louvre, the New one, its pyramid. Compare the actions of the patrons of old and of the private «sponsors» or the public administrations of today.
Given that good taste, paraphrasing Descartes is the worst distributed thing in the world, it is also the least democratic.
Because democracy has never truly worked.This assertion may sound surprising these days when it is commonly thought that it is the only viable system, but let us take a look at the great democracies in history.
Athenian democracy was based on slavery, each Athenian citizen had an average of about five slaves at his disposal. There was, certainly, equality among the citizens, but not among the inhabitants, since one-sixth of the population was the owner of the other five-sixths.
The Roman republic was not very democratic. The Senatus Populusque Romanus indicates that Rome conceived itself as a society of two rungs, the patricians and the plebeians, to which we must add a third one: the slaves, which by the third century had become so many that the plebeians were excused from working.
Certainly, Swiss democracy is the one which calls our admiration most, but it is a direct democracy, largely counterbalanced by the traditional structures of society, their cantons in particular. The Swiss who votes does it generally on matters of his incumbency and competence.
English democracy went through having been founded on the Carta Magna, exacted by force from John Lackland by the rebel barons somewhere around 1215. Its main articles guaranteed the rights of the fiefdoms and the privileges of the towns. Not until 1679, did habeas corpus begin to guarantee individual freedom. The progressive weakening of royal power was largely offset by a social structure, officially of two rungs — the House of Lords and the House of Commons — but in actuality, it had three rungs, the lords, the gentry that soon mixed with the high bourgeoisie, and the common people. On its part, the middle class was fractioned, from a social viewpoint, into three rungs: upper middle class, middle middle class, and lower middle class, with the upper classes at the top and the lower classes, in the plural, at the bottom. For as long as this backbone was maintained, Great Britain, in spite of the limits of its territory, remained a great nation, in which the notion of "gentleman", grounded, above everything, on a difference of race, then of class, then of culture, ensured the regulation of the ascending social flux.
In all this, monarchy used to play an essential symbolic role, though without true political responsibilities. When under pressure from the commons, kings began to make laws pell-mell, diluting in that manner the quality in the quantity, English society began to vacillate, with the results we all know. No matter that British legislation permitted the preservation of some great fortunes, which ensure a certain equilibrium in continuity for the country.
American democracy was founded by aristocrats like Jefferson and Hamilton, and it got pretty close to Washington being crowned king.
Since then, several factors, more social than political, have played a role in attenuating the defects of democracy:
- the great families: for Americans, it is natural that presidents be close relatives of one another; that a president should nominate his brother to become a judge, that another one should appoint his wife to organize the public health services.
- the great fortunes, for example, the major American embassies are systematically given out as political positions to those who have supported the electoral campaigns with their financing.
- the great Ivy League universities: They form a traditional elite based on a common lifestyle, common convictions, and frequently marriages within that same group.
- the secret societies emanated from the large universities: their members share a good portion of political power.
- the Protestant religious tradition, according to which all material success is perceived as a divine reward.
- the unanimous respect of the Constitution as a sacred institution.
- the election of the president by means of great electors.
- the general acceptance of the different standards of living giving awe and respect to more or less notable professional successes, the salary of an employer, reaching up to five hundred times the salary of an employee.
And yet, it is true that the United States have made of democracy an absolute system which they intend to impose on all the world — a matter which, in turn, derives from a natural need for hegemony in a great nation, from a messianism inherited from the Puritans, and from the justified conviction that the spread of the democratic doctrine is good for the opening of new markets— though it must be noted, without mitigation of any kind, that the version of democracy that they destinate for export differs considerably from the domestic version.
In comparison, let´s see the history of the French democracy.
This one was, above anything, the exclusive work of the bourgeoisie. In the beginning, the so-called "lower" people did not benefit from it at all, serving only as cannon fodder for the armies of the Republic, then of the Empire, and then again of the Republic. As a consequence, and to the extent that the social ideas — which are not necessarily democratic — advanced undefeated, it became necessary to give up the censual suffrage, that aberration of greed, to make way to universal suffrage, that aberration of the intelligence. The properly popular forces boiled quietly since the French Revolution which, from their point of view, was crippled, and the bourgeoisie had no compunction in squashing them as soon as they showed their head, as in the Revolution of the Commoners in Paris. It could be seen clearly at the time of the Second World War and in the war in Algiers, that France was not reconciled with itself, which is not surprising, considering that France is the only country in the world that has a national holiday and a national anthem which celebrate division rather than union.
Meanwhile, in the span of two hundred years, the Constitution has been modified sixteen times, with its colonial adventures, one of the fundamental principles of democracy has been unabashedly violated, the sacrosanct «right of the peoples to self-determination», and not one statesman of consequence has come out of the urns. Democracy had confirmed some, such as Napoleon and De Gaulle, if you wish to consider them such, but not even one had accessed power by means of the electoral machine which, in France, has served for nothing other than distilling mediocrity, when not directly suppurating corruption.
I make no bones about it, I am «hardly» democratic and I, willingly, offer myself to remove the doubt. In Switzerland, I might, perhaps, have been passionately so, in the United States, somewhat, in France, never.
(to be continued)
Go to Chapters XVIII and XIX
Go back to Chapters XII through XV