04 January 2010

Article: Bruce Gilley on anti-democratic thought

Bruce Gilley (Assistant Professor of Political Science, Portland State University), the author of the article "The New Antidemocrats" ("Orbis" 50, spring 2006: pp. 259-71), has made a further contribution to the commencing debate on anti-democratic thought.

In the January 2009 issue of the (pro-democracy) "Journal of Democracy" (pp. 113-27) he had an article published under the title "Is Democracy Possible?". The article can be read free of charge at:


Gilley writes that "in recent years, a slowly accelerating wave of skeptical and at times even hostile thought has arisen to challenge democracy's claim to be the best form of government [...], it is a carefully argued, social-scientific, and respectable critique of democracy that has been developed largely by Western scholars. Almost unbeknownst to the legions of democracy-builders or to the nearly four billion democratic citizens worldwide, the belief in democracy has begun to crumble inside some of the world's finest minds and institutions."

In particular, Gilley is concerned with the age-old, yet recently renewed and substantiated claims "that citizens are too ignorant, irrational, or both to rule themselves". While the article summarizes the relative arguments only superficially, it offers a bibliography for further reading. Most of the literature, though, is North America-centred and may thus not be of as much value to scholars (or activists) living, for example, in those countries the United States seeks to "democratize", unlike what Gilley seems to suggest.

At a more fundamental level, most countries do not have the kind of direct democracy practised most famously in Switzerland. In countries with a representative democratic system any public ignorance (or irrationality or misinformation) argument becomes somewhat (although not completely) irrelevant. The policies a parliament will enact are seldom those that individual parliamentary candidates campaigned on. Once elected, parliamentarians have to take into account the interests of different (and differing) parties and politicians, whether or not they form a coalition government. Only in a direct democracy will people get to vote on political issues themselves and only then public ignorance really matters.

If one took the public ignorance argument as seriously as Gilley does one would have to exclude the "public" (that is, everyone) from many more spheres of life. It is unrealistic to assume that people are generally better informed about most non-political issues. For example, public ignorance contributed significantly to the current crisis of the capitalist economy. It has proven true that the market is a mirror of democracy. As in democratic politics, people get to participate in the economy even if they do not understand how it works. In consequence, the market has failed (though mediated by managers and stockbrokers, it is the people who elected to make use of subprime mortgages, etc.) – and, I argue, so will democracy (blame it on democratic politicians' desire, or need, to give the people what the people want, if you will).

Public ignorance, irrationality or misinformation arguments are thus an unsophisticated form of critique of democracy. They can be no more than a starting point for the more serious anti-democratic thought called for in the twenty-first century. Once scholars begin to realize the public's ignorance, irrationality and general misinformation (as I did some ten years ago), they should get started thinking about more fundamental flaws of democracy (and the human nature) and come up with the spelled-out anti-democratic alternatives Gilley so rightly demands of us.

No comments:

Post a Comment