Fear and Loathing in Democracy: Introductory Chapter

Back in the olden days, when monarchs ruled and subjects obeyed, the sacred accident of birth would sometimes let the outrageously unfit ascend the throne. The royal council and veterans at the court knew all too well that the right of succession contained no guarantee of a successor suited to the task. Every now and then they would defy royal decrees in order to protect the realm. In exceptional cases they’d conspire to ensure that a “tragic death” paved the way for more favourable pretenders. But regardless of whether the monarch was insane or a bit feeble-minded, power-mad or chronically infantile, there was never a shortage of scholarly accounts that could make dynastic disgrace seem harmonious with the world order. Nobody questioned the principle of primogeniture simply because of the odd royal deviation. For chroniclers versed in history, such deviations would rather seem like cyclical occurences, confirming what the past promised the future held in store. As the ruler was blessed with divine mandate, periodic incidents of oppressive tyranny could appear as part of a mysterious plan. Biting its tail in the Lord’s name, theological reasoning assigned even the raving mad king a role on the stage of worldly events. If he demanded entire villages reduced to ashes, the most pious among his trembling subjects could deem the atrocities a divine retribution. As an ideological-political apparatus, the sacred monarchy had its internal logic. Its principles comprised both explanations and justifications for its own failings.

Democracy is considerably more complicated. It finds its reasons neither in divine authority nor in bloodlines traceable to the dawn of order. On the contrary, the democratic edifice rests on principles few would hesitate to call rational, at least in contrast to a feudal past. And yet, scholars in the modern era, no longer bound by the limits of theology, have occasionally found themselves confronted with a puzzle reminiscent of what the sacred monarchy encountered: Why would the people elect the tyrant? What’s gone wrong when the majority hands political power to the irresponsible and incompetent? Why would a people who ostensibly makes use of its sovereign right to elect its leaders embrace shackles and oppression?

We don’t need much imagination to understand how a monarch descends into paranoid power-madness. Inherited family feuds and a keen ear for conniving murmurs around court can feed the idea of a nascent conspiracy. Nipping the coup in the bud, the monarch enters a slippery slope of tyranny fuelled by self-propelling paranoia, which is hardly placated when the dedicated protectors of the realm secretly start to plot his downfall. Almost inevitably, the autocratic dictator tends to resemble the paranoid monarch. A regime entirely based on fear will always keep itself busy counteracting potential coups and revolutions. But how is paranoia propagated in democracies? How do delusions of a grand conspiracy seep into public opinion? In a democracy, it’s not always apparent where to seek explanations when things are clearly on the wrong track.

Many have aired the notion that irrational deterioration is unavoidable when the people are promoted to sovereign. A strain of cultural pessimism runs through the modern era, the proponents of which have offered numerous varieties of the same basic diagnosis: “mass man”, the master of the modern world, is hardly even master of his own domain. This unfortunate combination of omnipotence and impotence is bound to cause catastrophes; in other words, democracy unleashes the very same forces that spell its demise. Antiquity’s lovers of wisdom argued in a similar vein. The assumption is that evil’s root is to be found in the people, and that incompetent leaders and political irrationality stem from democracy’s irreparable deficiencies. What we call democratic societies have never lacked elite institutions and aristocratic elements—and yet, they have also never lacked doomsayers lamenting life under “mob rule”.

Against the doomsayers some will object that strictly speaking, the people have never even been given a chance to rule. Rather, they are constantly being misled by manipulating forces. Instead of reproaching the people, these critics of power highlight the need for certain fair play rules that all democratic actors are required to follow. Some take the claim a step further, and say that a real democracy would only exist where the means of persuasion are equally distributed—so far, democracy has merely been a promise yet to be fulfilled. For others, there is a sound middle ground, ideally embodied by the institutions of liberal democracy: granted, people may be under the constant influence of demagoguery and propaganda, but for that exact reason, we must take into account that they can’t always see through the lies. A responsible democracy therefore has to maintain a constitutional buffer zone between the general will and the enactment of governance.

Aside from these typical answers to the question of democracy, there’s always someone who takes recourse to a secular version of the sacred monarchy’s circular logic: As the rule of the people simply means that the people elect their own leaders, we will get neither better nor worse leaders than we deserve. An evil or a stupid leader merely reflects the evil or stupid people that have let their will be done.

But democracy is not only a form of government. In the area we call the West and the era we call modernity, democracy has become a way of life and a form of civilization. Regarded as a cultural force, democracy is far more sweeping than formal channels for political participation. It has rebellious features: democracy means a constant push to commit new patricides, an incessant struggle for liberation from authorities deemed illegitimate, and a struggle to level hierarchies and redistribute privileges. But democracy’s revolutionary or progressive impetus is not devoid of ambiguity. As a way of life, democracy is also characterised by persistent tensions between liberty and equality, between consideration for individuals’ inviolable rights and consideration for the majority’s will, and between winners and losers on the peaceful battlefield that democracy stipulates. While the form of government we call democracy can no longer be legitimately challenged, democracy as a way of life has a tendency to wage war with itself, what we may call culture war. In these wars, the most committed democrats can suddenly appear to be democracy’s fiercest critics; rhetorically, they tend to echo 19th century (and ancient) discussions on what the cultural force of democracy ultimately amounts to. Is it ennobling or demeaning? Is it driven by honourable or base motives? Does it elevate the many to the rank of dignity or drag the best down to contemptible mediocrity?

These questions and frictions have accompanied more than 200 years of democratic dispute in the Western world. Every now and again, the questions have imposed themselves with particular urgency, and some have been inclined to see regress where others have seen progress. An experience of crisis has always been central to the cultural self-reflection characteristic of the modern era. No crises have been declared more frequently than the crisis of democracy; for a long time, it was even customary among the comfortable classes to consider democracy in itself as a crisis. A sardonic look at modern history might conclude that the crisis of democracy is a permanent condition: the crisis has altered between latent and manifest states, but it’s never been hard to find someone wailing about it. Through the same sardonic lens we may regard today’s populism as the latest variety of the question that cropped up in the sacred monarchy. Populism’s challenge emerges against the backdrop of a prevailing—albeit faltering—standard of political normality: liberal democracy. But crises never come alone. Other crises are usually decisive when the crisis called democracy becomes manifest, and there’s no shortage of current candidates: financial crisis, terror crisis, refugee crisis, environmental crisis, pandemic crisis. They all make fear and insecurity proliferate—sentiments that can be transformed into a general crisis of legitimacy for those who need a popular mandate to govern.

One way to reflect on our own crisis is to study how scholars in the modern era have pondered the latent and manifest crisis of democracy. What can these reflections teach us? What does our crisis have in common with the crises of the past? What is special about our crisis? There’s surely much to learn from scholarly wisdom in this regard. But in the name of democracy, this book will opt to treat these scholars with friendly irreverence. Scholarly reflections also tend to reflect attitudes and assumptions that are integral to democracy’s fundamental problem. While intellectuals have often formed vanguards of democratisation, they have also expressed fears that the very same democratisation will erase all distinctions between high and low, knowledge and opinion, individuals and masses. In an 1835 remark, Stendhal summed up this ambivalence with brutal honesty: “I detest the rabble, but under the name of the people I am passionately engaged in the struggle for their well-being.” When we examine reflections on the crisis of democracy, we must take such attitudes into account; a history of the “crisis of democracy” is also about the thinkers and writers who have articulated this experience.

What follows is a piece of intellectual history in which the protagonist—often referred to as the masses or crowds—is never given the floor on its own terms. Instead, the masses are confined to a role of hermeneutic focal point, among thinkers who’d rather distance themselves from the subject of their intellectual endeavour. A lot can be said about the intellectuals’ discomfort with democracy. But here, the point is not to compile a record of elitism and snobbery, as if it would serve the democratic cause to call out its less committed adherents in the ivory tower. Being attentive to how “masses” and “crowds” emerge within certain modes of interpretation is not an attempt to elude the interpreters’ ranks. On the contrary: the thinkers and ideas examined here will reverberate when we turn attention to the current discussions of what’s happening today. The masses may be understood as a collective personification of the cultural force called democracy. Occasionally, this cultural force runs into conflict with itself—and we can’t plainly celebrate it as “progressive” every time it demands to be reckoned with.

Reflections on the masses can shed light on features that rarely fall within the scope of dominant liberal strains in political thought. A diverse tradition that describes crowds and masses runs in parallel with the political ideas of liberalism and has often challenged the latter’s basic assumptions. Whereas liberal theory emphasises individual autonomy and rationality, in the figure of enlightened citizens or homo economicus pursuing self-interest, the masses have appeared as though they operate at a far more primitive—or emotional—level. If modern political philosophy has its founding fathers in Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704), there was a simultaneous development in which Spinoza (1632-1677) inaugurated a way of thinking the political from a completely different vantage point. Instead of jumping off from the notion of a social contract and an abstract opposition between state and citizen, Spinoza elevated the masses or the multitude to the fundamental figure of political thought. For Spinoza, it was the masses who toppled regimes and allowed new powers to emerge. The central question of political philosophy would therefore always be what might urge the masses to embrace overt tyrannies. Spinoza sensed that the inherent danger of democracy sprang from the diffusion of what he termed passive affects: fear, hatred, paranoia, anxiety, vengefulness. Ultimately, political order could lapse into a vicious cycle, propelled by the masses’ fear and the fear of the masses.

Our history of modern democracy finds its point of departure more than a hundred years after the publication of Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670). Let’s lend an ear to a French viscount, as he thinks back on an event he had witnessed first-hand:

Everyone admired what he should have condemned, the accident, and no one looked to the future to see what was in store for the people, the changes in manners, ideas, and political power—a renovation of the human race in which the taking of the Bastille was only the prelude to an era, a sort of bloodstained jubilee. Brutish anger made ruins, and beneath this anger was a hidden intelligence that laid among these ruins the foundations of a new edifice.

With these retrospective musings, Francois-René de Chateaubriand pondered what he had observed in Paris around the storming of the Bastille. A city in uproar saw raging mobs descend into an orgy of pillaging and violence. To the viscount, it seemed at first as though the masses were celebrating violence in itself, with no consideration for what they intended to achieve. But many years later, Chateaubriand—a loyal monarchist not unsympathetic to the political ideas of the new era—could recall the event with the Olympian benefit of hindsight: the brutish anger had harboured a hidden intelligence. In the heat of the moment, the masses could scarcely comprehend that they were ushering in a new order, far beyond the momentary paroxysms and destruction. By “hidden intelligence”, the viscount presumably referred to revolutionary ideals inspired by Enlightenment philosophy and natural law. But in these events, there was also another phenomenon that had found its expression: the masses themselves, who had forcefully entered the heart of politics. In the words of G. F. W. Hegel, it appeared as though the violent outbursts were in fact animated by the “cunning of reason”, which made the masses an oblivious instrument serving a World Spirit unfolding through history. But then again, the question could easily arise whether this fortunate union of mass rage and history’s reason was a necessary bond or a contingent fluke. Hegel seemed to believe that the historical struggle for recognition had come to an end with the revolution’s accomplishments; but that didn’t seem to appease the rage of the masses.

Collective insurgencies against unacceptable conditions have been a feature of all human history known to us. Yet, the year 1789 marks a decisive threshold. If it stands as the origin myth of political modernity, it’s mainly because its lasting and irreversible legacy was political awareness among the masses. Since time immemorial, the masses had been political objects, subservient to the rule of kings. Suddenly they demanded to be the main political subject, the source of all legitimate power. They no longer confined themselves to episodic peasant uprisings or the momentary outpouring of anger against outrageous bread prices. Now, the masses were becoming a permanent political force, equipped with a sophisticated vocabulary to convert dissatisfaction into universal demands. Even though a small group of men and elites of enlightenment were leading the charge of this new political spirit, the spirit instantly seemed to radiate from the many rather than the few. In step with numerous aftershocks of the Revolution, the masses became the fulcrum of 19th century reflections on the new era. From the epicentre in the capital of the 19th century, Paris, the masses were the spectre that haunted Europe. From then on, questions concerning political order and chaos, rationality and irrationality seemed to revolve around the riddle of crowd behaviour and the “mass mind”. Conservatives feared the masses, liberals regarded them with deep ambivalence, while nationalists and socialists eventually became rivals in attempts to woo them over. Some would see the masses as an embodiment of what the Enlightenment strived to overcome, especially in the wake of Dr. Stockmann-like clashes with the “compact majority”.

A vital strain of the history that follows unfolds in the tensions between crowds and publics. Here, reflections on the state of democracy tend to follow a rhythm dictated by shifts in media technology. Enlightenment optimism in the 18th and 19th century was also a child of the Gutenberg era. A growing readership enabled an explosive growth in publications: newspapers, journals, pamphlets, and magazines. For Immanuel Kant, enlightenment was a process that took place between scholars and readers, empowering readers to emerge from a state of “self-imposed nonage” by becoming part of a reasoning and critical public. According to Kant, it was only through this slow process—facilitated by a free press—that the “large and thoughtless herd” could gradually rid itself of debilitating prejudices and misguided ideas. In the 20th century, the advent of broadcasting initiated a long era of “mass media”, and the notion of publics changed from active participants to passive recipients. Visions of enlightenment lost ground in a battle many regarded as a sign of decay, exemplified by mass propaganda and the culture industry. Scholars had only just started to challenge this hypothesis of general decline when a new shift occurred. Digital and social media seemed to usher in a process of unprecedented democratisation, as the masses of readers and consumers were becoming publicists and producers. Then again, these media also seemed to provide unprecedented opportunities for mass manipulation.

Some may flinch at this seemingly “patrician” approach to the question of democracy. Do the masses even exist? The concept hardly appears precise or particularly timely. What Chateaubriand claimed to have observed on that memorable day in July 1789 constitutes a recurring motif in portraits of crowds and masses: thoughtlessness goes hand in hand with a nigh-on irrepressible force, regardless of whether this force emerges through “public opinion” or spontaneously gushes forth from a randomly gathered crowd at the town square. It’s no surprise to find such portraits painted by the likes of viscount de Chateaubriand. But as old Europe’s coats of arms began to fade under the rays of enlightenment, these men and women would assume more modern standings: authors, doctors, psychologists, philosophers, politicians, PR consultants, and op-ed writers. For roughly 100 years, from the last third of the 19th century till the 1970s, the main currents of social theory hinged on the notion that humans are standardised and deprived of individuality as soon as they coalesce into masses or crowds. Among conservative critics, this diagnosis has been at the heart of a lamentation that’s been with us since the dawn of the modern era. It also continues to be frequently vented today, even though the unabashed contempt risks public denunciation—incidentally, a kind of denunciation that’s become a prime example of how even the chattering classes may succumb to fits of unreasoning “mass hysteria”. 

The concept of the masses has certainly been in decline over the past 50 years, due to both theoretical criticism and societal change. Then again, it has always been notoriously vague. Its fuzziness is reflected in semantic instability, as it’s never entirely clear whether it’s synonymous with the people or the “plebs”, whether it fits in with Marxist class theory, what kind of elite it’s pitted against, and whether it implicitly evokes ancient notions of the mob or vulgus. Ostensible synonyms and different nuances in different languages amount to utter confusion: mass, crowd, foule, Masse, commoners, multitude, etc.

Today, few would speak of the masses with the same bluntness as before; it’s hard to avoid the aristocratic whiff of the term’s coinage. On the other hand, it’s even harder to steer clear of the same old tropes in our current urge to discuss populism, angry crowds, or social media. In a democracy that keeps waging war with itself, it’s also a democratic reflex to criticise democracy. The tensions and attitudes that used to be described with reference to the masses have hardly vanished even if the term now tends to appear only in inverted commas. It’s easy to concur with Raymond Williams: “In fact, there are no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.” Fair enough. We may as well say: In fact, there is no people; there are only ways to invoke the people. And we may say this: intellectual fictions deriding the barbaric masses are neither more nor less factual than intellectual fictions praising the noble people.

But there are a couple of important reasons why we can’t simply allow Williams’ words to be final. One reason is that prejudiced depictions of crowds and masses may also contain crucial insights, whether the author is called Gustave Le Bon or Theodor W. Adorno. Another reason is that the various ways of seeing people as masses have had very real effects, whether we’re talking about Napoleon III or Adolf Hitler, Edward Bernays or Facebook. The history of the masses is also the history of the interpreters of the masses. Most importantly, it is the history of a relation: between the masses and those who aspire to interpret or rule them, enlighten or control them, flatter or offend them. As the conservative thinker Peter Sloterdijk and the radical thinker Jacques Rancière both have pointed out in our time, this is also a history of contempt. A tense structure of feeling appears to be an essential feature of democracy as we know it, and it triggers a particular dynamic of fear and loathing. The following is intended as a contribution to democratic self-reflection—at a time when it is desperately needed.

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