2005 March 02 Wednesday
Robert Conquest On The Limits And Pitfalls Of Democracy

Eminent historian Robert Conquest, who for decades wrote politically incorrect but true things about Stalin and the Soviet Union and who for his effort was heavily criticised from the Left, has an essay in The National Interest taking on a different group of believers in false panaceas. This time Conquest's target is the mad crowd that sees democracy as the universal solution for political problems.

The common addiction to general words or concepts tends to produce mind blockers or reality distorters. As Clive James has put it, "verbal cleverness, unless its limitations are clearly and continuously seen by its possessors, is an unbeatable way of blurring reality until nothing can be seen at all."

"Democracy" is high on the list of blur-begetters--not a weasel word so much as a huge rampaging Kodiak bear of a word. The conception is, of course, Greek. It was a matter of the free vote by the public (though confined to males and citizens). Pericles, praising the Athenian system, is especially proud of the fact that policies are argued about and debated before being put into action, thus, he says, "avoiding the worst thing in the world", which is to rush into action without considering the consequences. And, indeed, the Athenians did discuss and debate, often sensibly.

Its faults are almost as obvious as its virtues. And examples are many--for instance, the sentencing of Socrates, who lost votes because of his politically incorrect speech in his own defense. Or the Athenian assembly voting for the death of all the adult males and the enslavement of all the women and children of Mytilene, then regretting the decision and sending a second boat to intercept, just in time, the boat carrying the order. Democracy had the even more grievous result of procuring the ruin of Athens, by voting for the disastrous and pointless expedition to Syracuse against the advice of the more sensible, on being bamboozled by the attractive promises of the destructive demagogue Alcibiades.

His use of the Clive James quote about verbal cleverness strikes me as a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) allusion to neoconservatives.

So how about instant democracy of the sort that the neocons want spread over the Middle East? By Conquest's standard it is worthless because it does not emerge from an existing tradition that will support it.

As to later elections, a few years ago there was a fairly authentic one in Algeria. If its results had been honored, it would have replaced the established military rulers with an Islamist political order. This was something like the choice facing Pakistan in 2002. At any rate, it is not a matter on which the simple concepts of democracy and free elections provide us with clear criteria. "Democracy" is often given as the essential definition of Western political culture. At the same time, it is applied to other areas of the world in a formal and misleading way. So we are told to regard more or less uncritically the legitimacy of any regime in which a majority has thus won an election. But "democracy" did not develop or become viable in the West until quite a time after a law-and-liberty polity had emerged. Habeas corpus, the jury system and the rule of law were not products of "democracy", but of a long effort, from medieval times, to curb the power of the English executive. And democracy can only be seen in any positive or laudable sense if it emerges from and is an aspect of the law-and-liberty tradition.

I typed the above before reading the rest of his essay and, lo and behold, Conquest has disparaging things to say about "instant democracies". Hey, and I already thought highly of this guy!

The countries without at least a particle of that background or evolution cannot be expected to become instant democracies; and if they do not live up to it, they will unavoidably be, with their Western sponsors, denounced as failures. Democracy in any Western sense is not easily constructed or imposed. The experience of Haiti should be enough comment.

Conquest says democratization is sometimes used as a tool to ruin institutions.

Democratization of undemocratizable institutions is sometimes doubtless the expression of a genuine utopian ideal, as when the Jacobins by these means destroyed the French navy. But more often it is (in the minds of the leading activists, at least) a conscious attempt to ruin the institutions in question, as when the Bolsheviks used the idea to destroy the old Russian army. When this, among other things, enabled them to take power themselves, they were the first to insist on a discipline even more vigorous.

So then are some advocates of democracy really preaching it in order to cause destruction and general mayhem? How about, say, a civil war between majority and minority groups in Middle Eastern countries? Could this in fact be a conscious but unspoken goal?

Disappointed by the lack of insights to be gleaned from 99.9+% of the commentators you read? Go read his full essay. The mind that wrote it was born July 15, 1917 which makes him 87 years old. I hope my mind can work that well should I live to be that old.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2005 March 02 04:46 PM  Reconstruction and Reformation

Stephen said at March 2, 2005 6:10 PM:

In every age certain words take on a symbolic meaning. At this moment in time, the lucky words are: democracy, freedom, terrorist, insurgent, patriot, muslim. In every age it is the symbolic meaning that is sacred, and anyone who tries to contrast it with the dictionary meaning threatens the group-think of the mob.

crush41 said at March 2, 2005 8:41 PM:

I'm confused as to how the idea of spreading democracy is of "mob mentality" when nowhere near the majority of its potential purveryors (Westerners) support it. Even in the US it is split right down the middle, and many supporters of the idea see it as a viable option worth trying more than they see it as some sort of panacea to world woes.

Why would the US want civil war in the ME? What could be more devastating to the global economy than such a thing occuring? And why would we have knocked out the underdog (Sunnis), unless there is a sinister plan in place to create a civil war that spans the entire ME from Saudi Arabia to Iran? Wouldn't that be totally ditching the "for oil" conspiracy in favor of the "for Israel" one (and as Wolfowitz runs away!)? I can't see anything but masochism as a motive there so please set me straight.

Randall Parker said at March 2, 2005 11:19 PM:


I know people (including a consevative political columnist who writes for a prominent conservative mag whose title you'd recognize that has a lot of neocon writers) who want civil war in the Middle East because they argue that the Arabs would be less dangerous to us if their countries broke into small pieces that spent lots of time fighting each other. These people do not see failure of democracy in Iraq as a problem. Civil war between Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds? Great they say.

There are definitely advocates for splitting the Shia-majority province of Saudi Arabia (which has most of Saudi Arabia's oil btw) off from the rest of Saudi Arabia.

Of course civil wars would be disruptive to oil production. But if the civil wars eventually were ended with smaller polities emerging then in theory the US could dominate these smaller polities more easily. Also, each smaller polity would have less surplus money to, say, fund a large nuclear weapons development program. These are arguments I hear from people I know.

PacRim Jim said at March 3, 2005 2:38 AM:

Keep in mind that newly democratized countries are not ipso facto friendly with the United States. They usually are less bellicose, though.

Tom West said at March 3, 2005 4:05 AM:

The point that democracies make mistakes or can even self-destruct is irrelevent. The question is do they make *less* mistakes and self-destruct less often than other forms of government? It's a lot harder to find a country that is willing to destroy itself to kill the "enemy" than it is to find a single madman. Impossible? No. Vastly less likely? Yes.

That's why we push for democracy.

And yes, "instant democracy" is obviously quite fragile. But given that the only other option may be anarchy (once a dangerous government is removed), democracy is a whole lot more humane. Most Americans probably don't want to see themselves as part of a nation willing to see any numbers of foreigners killed in order to advance their own country's interests. Think of it as the cost of feeling good about oneself.

noone said at March 3, 2005 5:37 AM:

One of the big issues that will be debated later in the 21st century will be the relative failure of liberal democratic capitalism.

Randall Parker said at March 3, 2005 9:14 AM:

Tom West,

Do you think the shift from Duvalier rule in Haiti to having elections has worked for Haiti? I think it is obvious that Haiti is far far worse off than it was under dictatorship. Democracy in Haiti led to the current anarchy.

Or how about Algeria? Do you think Algeria benefitted from the election that set off a civil war that has been raging for years?

How about majority rule in Rwanda? How'd that work out for them?

One can use economic statistics to predict the failure of some democracies.

Most US interventions fail to produce democracy (let alone liberal democracy and the rule of law) and successful interventions are the exception.

Ryan said at March 3, 2005 11:35 AM:

An esteemed Chinese statesman, speaking 200 years after the French Revolution, when asked whether he thought the French Revolution was a good thing or a bad thing said, "It's too soon to know."

It's way to soon to know what will happen in Iraq. I didn't believe taht the electiosn would be at all sucessful. They weren't grat, but better than most countries. We also have to look towards what is happening to Iraqs neighbors. Women voting in Saudi Arabia. Syria backing down in Lebanon. Palestine electing someone other than an EU puppet. It's all connected. But it's still too soon to KNOW.

People will point to whatever studies and statistics make then feel good about their position.

crush41 said at March 3, 2005 6:25 PM:

It's all connected.

Today Prince Abdallah jumped on board by threatening to end bilateral relations if Syria does not pull out of Lebanon.

One can use economic statistics to predict the failure of some democracies.


Why is Iraq doomed to low per capita income? Unlike Haiti or Rwanda, Iraq has oil--twice the production of Algeria. That would seem to work in the country's favor.

Randall Parker said at March 3, 2005 9:04 PM:


It isn't the low per capita incomes that cause the failure of democracy. Rather, the same conditions in a populace that cause the low per capita incomes also cause political failings. It wasn't affluence that made the US into a democracy. Living standards in late 18th century America were quite low by, say, Jordanian or Syrian standards today. But Americans had the social and intellectual capital to create a republic.

A country rich in oil can have higher living standards than one would expect from measuring the social capital of the populace.

GUYK said at March 9, 2005 4:49 AM:

I do not live in a democracy. I live in the USA which is a constitutional republic--much different from a majority rule democratic government. Majority rule is fine for the majority but hell for the minority. I do believe that those who advocate true democracy for developing countries fully understand the concept of true democracy which gives the majority the ability to confiscate the production of the producers and distribute it to the looters. Most of the time those who speak long and loudly about majority rule are closet socialists.

All of that said I have my doubts about the ability of a constitutional democracy to survive in the mid-east. Turkey seems to have a functional secular government however if my memory serves me right the Turkish military has intervened a few times to keep the government secular and functional. This may well be the case in any future secular governments in other Islamic countries.

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