Alain de Benoist and the Democratic Problem


Alain de Benoist's 1985 book length essay, The Problem of Democracy is now available from the Arktos publishing house. Outside of specialist circles, and certainly within English speaking countries, Alain de Benoist may not be particularly well known. However, with a more popular emergence of a new conservative political thinking, an intellectual strain divorced from traditional Buckleyist and neo-conservative schools, but grounded in more classical views of government and social relations, de Benoist's words may gain better familiarity. Our copy arrived as a well-bound hardback edition sporting either an aesthetically questionable or intentionally humorous dust jacket. The book is good quality and should hold up through many readings. No subject or name index is provided, however editor John Morgan added additional notes wherever explanatory assistance was deemed necessary. Editor Morgan also provided, if available, English language citations for sources referenced in the original French, and Tomislav Sunic authored a Preface. As with the Arktos Media edition of Faye’s Archeofuturism, Sergio Knipe is the translator. The Problem of Democracy consists of five chapters written in a general expository style along with an appended summary: Ten Thesis on Democracy. It must be noted that the author's prose style is both straightforward and eminently readable. Those expecting something typically academic, something typically arcane, or in a style similar to that of, say, Jacques Derrida, will be disappointed.

When confronting practical politics we generally think in terms of discreet political problems. Often, however, we are not predisposed to consider problems inherent within a given political form, and how the form actually determines a problem's possible solution. Political action is always delimited by the form or type of regime, and therefore it is not helpful to discuss potential political programs without reference to the regime itself. It is not enough to claim that we act within a democracy and, therefore, whatever has been decided upon must necessarily be “the will of the people.” Prior to it all we ought to possess an idea of what democracy means, and what can be expected from it, both in theory and in practice. In order to make sense of Alain de Benoist's arguments one must begin with an understanding of democracy as a governing method. Democracy is surely a common word in our lexicon, but once thought through, and once parsed within common usage we begin to understand that we may not understand its precise meaning at all. It may be more accurate to say that although we can perhaps establish a precise definition, we are unsure how this definition applies to the variety of recognized democratic regimes, not to mention other questionable regimes calling themselves democratic. Today, although we confront a variety of purportedly democratic governments, can anyone rightly explain the word's relation to, for example, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea?

Our usual understanding has democracy describing a form of government wherein sovereign power resides with the people. This, of course, begs the question, who are the people, and by what mechanism can they possibly employ in order to effect legitimate rule, or sovereign power? It is precisely these questions the author intends to, if not directly answer, at least bring to the table for discussion. Note that the book's title is “the problem” of democracy. It is not “the solution to the problem” of democracy. As such, The Problem of Democracy is a simply an introduction for approaching fundamental democratic political questions, although it would be a mistake to call it a simple book.

De Benoist begins by discounting the idea that democracy is somehow historically necessary or coterminous with a people's political evolution. That is, the notion that all peoples everywhere have within themselves a nascent desire to manifest outwardly a collective will toward governance based upon Western-style democratic principles. This argument was ostensibly part of the groundwork, or at least one offered reason (albeit an after the fact reason) for the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Then it was common to hear neo-conservative commentators proclaiming the American coalition as a catalytic force for the transformation of a latent yet suppressed democratic urge, one now active and both represented and highlighted by subsequent democratic elections. One also observes a similar idea of democratic universalism in our media's descriptions of current Egyptian “democracy protests,” although it it must be admitted that it is difficult for many to understand how protesters arguing for Western liberal democratic reforms could, at the same time, engage decidedly non-democratic figures as potential leaders. Perhaps that is why our Western media downplays certain questionable aspects within the situation.

In de Benoist's brief historical review we are reminded that, “in contrast to the Orient, absolute despotism has always been exceedingly rare in Europe.” But we would be wrong to think that the absence of despotism, or sovereign rule divorced from the people's consent, is necessarily coexistent with political inter-party competition. In a footnote to the main text [p.87] de Benoist writes:

“It has also been argued that there is little difference between a single-party system and a system with no parties, as by definition the former does away with the notion of opposition that is characteristic of party systems. On the other hand, someone like Spengler reckons that single-party systems have all the inconvenience of multiparty ones. Let us not forget, however, that in the Third World, the establishment of democracy has often coincided with that of a single party, considered (not without reason at times), to be the most adequate way of bringing the people together in the pursuit of a common goal.”

Usually we like to think that inter-party competition is a necessary ingredient for the maintenance of ideological competition, or checks and balances. But de Benoist reminds us that it is not always so. With regard to his comments on the Orient and Third World we may consider the situation of the People's Republic of China. Founded in 1949 after the Communist victory in Chinese Civil War, some cite the reign of Mao as an essentially modern example of ancient Oriental despotism, yet within the CCP the transformation and flowing of delegated power was evident through the characters of Liu Shaoqi, to Lin Biao, through the Jiang Qing clique, and finally into its more modern and current aspect, the regime of Deng Xiaoping and his reformist heirs. Now, few would call the CCP a democratic institution, at least from the time of its founding and through the end of the Cultural Revolution, and most would question its democratic aspect today. However, its actions in the name of the Chinese people, whether constituting an ersatz democracy or otherwise, shows that ideological competition is ever present even within closed regimes.

Also, Chinese Communism does not always flow from the center to the periphery, as local cadres cannot always ignore the will of the people inasmuch as “popular will” often manifests in mass (but usually controlled) public demonstrations [see Conflicts and Clashes are the Natural Social Norm, and The Biggest Threat to China is not Social Turmoil, but Social Decay by Sun Liping, Professor of Sociology at Tsinghua University, both available on line with a proper search]. Finally, if citizens are relatively content and generally supportive of the regime, is this not at least one indication of regime legitimacy even if its form is not what is typically thought of as democratic? We can cite the current so-called “Jasmine Revolution” where on-going efforts to suppress non-sanctioned popular expression, that is, expression outside the Communist party apparatus, have resulted in increased Internet censorship and possible arrests. Witness the February 20 edition of the Bangkok Post:

“Protesters were urged to shout slogans including 'we want food to eat', 'we want work', 'we want housing', 'we want justice', 'long live freedom', and 'long live democracy'. In a speech given Saturday, Chinese President Hu Jintao acknowledged growing social unrest and urged the ruling Communist Party to better safeguard stability while also ordering strengthened controls over 'virtual society' or the Internet. 'It is necessary to strengthen and improve a mechanism for safeguarding the rights and interests of the people.' “ [Italics added.]

What is missing within the Chinese system, the Egyptian system, and a host of other at least purported non-Western democracies, is an institutional mechanism whereby citizens make their will known in non-violent fashion. In the West it has been a fundamental principle that without elections democracy cannot manifest. De Benoist presents the obvious and the practical question, who is to vote? And not only who, but how? That is to say, is democracy only pure if it supports universal suffrage in conjunction with direct elections (referendums), or can we rightly call representative systems (republics) democratic? If the latter, how should representatives act—as a “voice of the people” or as independent jurists deciding issues based upon their own understanding of possible outcomes? Today in America it is common for right-conservatives to call for a “return to the principles of the Founders.” But do they really consider what this means in terms of representation and suffrage? Also, problematic within voting schemes is the dilution of the vote. The idea that as the number of voters grows the value of any given vote diminishes. De Benoist also highlights a common practice of voting against the “lesser of two evils.” We can report that more than a few American political commentators have lately been urging voters to actively support opposition candidates in order to negatively influence the outcomes of competing parties. Given all the above, how can “Machiavellian” tactics be reconciled with more classical notions of positive democracy?

Alain de Benoist

Alain de Benoist does not offer the reader much traditional philosophical background when presenting his arguments. For instance, by my count (again, the frustrating lack of an index makes it difficult for a reviewer to be sure) Machiavelli is mentioned once, Hobbes is given a brief paragraph, Locke is mentioned at least once, but Rousseau, not surprisingly given the author's French heritage, appears to be the most frequent political philosopher encountered. Given the theme of the book plus its manageable length, one cannot be too critical. At the same time, certain unexplained statements may be perplexing to the reader. For instance, when discussing classical notions of democracy de Benoist writes, “In contrast to what we find in Euripides, for instance in Aeschylus, the city is regularly described as a unit.” We are sure that the author has a point, but are unsure exactly what it is. Certainly we can think of Euripides' Medea as being a commentary on the dangers of allowing the other, the outsider into one's midst. Perhaps an explanatory sentence or two would have helped the less informed reader to parse his meaning just a bit better.

De Benoist's critique of classical theorists with their modernist counterparts turns on notions contrasting an historically exclusive organic unit—the Greek city, with that of an Enlightenment derived idea of universalism fostered by, on the one hand, a materialistic scientific rationalism and, mostly, a commensurate Christian spirituality. We say mostly because while there are several instances describing the influence of Christianity, we found one instance (where is our index?) of a Judaeo-Christian influence [p. 30]. Using the interesting and useful Google Labs Ngram viewer tool, we are shown that, historically at any rate, the idea of a Jewish-Christian influence, at least within the literature, makes a brief appearance in the late nineteenth century, but attains intellectual inertia only after about 1920. Thus, from a standpoint of political philosophy, it is probably more sensible to speak solely about Christian influence. Prior to the Reformation, and from a classical standpoint, Augustine and Aquinas come to mind, the latter being the principal Christian transmitter and interpreter of Aristotle. We also remember, and offer as another example, how the more or less Jewish Dutch philosopher Spinoza addressed his Theologico-Political Treatise to Christians, knowing that Jews would not be very receptive to his way of thinking (they were not). We may turn to another political scholar, Leo Strauss, for an opinion:

“The particularly Jewish character of the work must be understood in the light of Spinoza's guiding intention. If one assumes that he believed in the superiority of Christianity to Judaism, one cannot help the suggestion that he wanted to give to Christians the following counsel: that they should abandon Jewish carnal relics which have defaced Christianity almost from its beginning, or that they should return to the purely spiritual teaching of original Christianity” [from How to Study Spinoza's Theologico-Political Treatise].

Of course, for Strauss, for whom philosophy was paramount, Spinoza's aim was subversive. It was, in fine, addressed to “potential philosophers who are Christian” in an effort to stem the Christian practice of the “persecution of philosophers.”

The contrast between classical and modern notions of democracy invite a comparison with Strauss, since it was his view that within classical political thought there existed a potential salvation for our modernist political problems. Strauss framed the question as one of natural (as opposed to positive) right, with classical democratic thought allied to the naturalistic view. Contrast a similar notion from de Benoist who argues the contradiction between rights flowing from the city, where citizenship conveys the liberty to participate politically towards the good of the city, and modernist political rights as an emancipation from the city. The classical idea understood that man was by nature a social being, and that as a rational social being his nature could only manifest within a rationally ordered political system. Here, the idea of man's end is paramount. The idea of a natural end is alien to our Enlightenment derived conceptions of science (but not our Christian heritage), yet it makes no sense to speak of classical democracy without understanding it.

The natural end of man presumes an essentialist view of man's nature or essence. This is best known in the Platonic formal realism, or the more moderate Aristotelian-Thomistic realism. And all is predicated upon on a distinct view of causation. Today we typically view causation in terms of what the ancients described as efficient. But ancient or classical thought also understood formal, material, and final causation. Here, for a thing to manifest completely it was necessary for it to participate in all causal aspects, the latter being a thing's end. The Enlightenment did away with teleological notions resulting in an inversion of political thinking, even though some attribute this shift to the prominence of late-medieval nominalism (if only individual things exist, how can a common “nature” be possible?). Strauss, for his part, recognized the first important political manifestation of such new thinking in the philosophy of Machiavelli, for whom it was not very important to know how men ought to act but, at least from a political standpoint, one must understand how they in fact do act. By the time of Hobbes' “scientific” political philosophy the notion of end was completely superfluous. What mattered was the beginning, and the beginning revealed a nature that must be abandoned forever. For Hobbes, all men in nature were equal, and found themselves equally an inhabitant of a quite unnatural environment:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [Leviathan, Chapter XIII: Of the Natural Condition of Mankind as Concerning Their Felicity and Misery]

This very important notion of equality in democracy must be addressed. De Benoist writes ,

“Aristotle, who was no partisan of egalitarianism, writes, 'The mass while made up of individuals who, when considered in isolation, possess no great merits, may, once it comes together, prove superior to those who possess merits—this, not on an individual level, but as a collectivity.' The question to be addressed, then, is what the specific competence of the people may be and in what sphere it can best be exercised.?”1

The classical notion of participatory democracy held that it was limited, and always meant for the few. De Benoist points to the fact that citizens generally made up only a small percentage of those living in and benefiting from the ancient city. Such a situation is, of course, predicted upon a natural inequality of men. The idea of a general equality was never considered tenable by classical authors, and, as we have seen, only with the emergence of modern political philosophy was the subject ever seriously considered possible or practical. We can trace this beginning to the idea of the social contract. With Hobbes, equality was necessary inasmuch as only equal men could be expected to enter freely into an equal contract. Of course, unsaid, but completely understood within Hobbes, is the idea that men entering into civil union were a particular type of men—civilized (or at least pre civil-unionized) English men. De Benoist brings up the Jeffersonian phrase, “All men are created equal,” however this excerpt from a declaration of war must be kept in context. As M. E. Bradford pointed out, the rhetorical wording within the Declaration meant one thing specifically: the equality of all Englishmen under the Crown [see, for instance, The Heresy of Equality, Bradford Replies to Jaffa, Modern Age, Winter 1976]. One understands de Benoist as arguing for an inclusive democracy legitimized by maximum participation. At the same time, he appears to side with the classical conception of the demos whereby citizenship is limited to an organic unit possessing common goals, and a common heritage. This is exactly what we do not have in today's multicultural environment, where individuals are prior to the nation.

De Benoist reminds us of many important ancillary issues for the establishment of a democratic state. For instance, in today's technological societies we are increasingly constrained by unelected bureaucrats and techno-management elites. Next, de Benoist cites the problems with limits on speech, and to what extent limitations are necessary in order to maintain regime security. We find concrete examples of this in the so-called Wikileaks fiasco. Also, the author describes how, with delegation, the individual's power becomes marginalized. And we must not forget “unelected” holders of power frequently influencing our democracies: the media, private economic “powers” and other organized interest groups. More often than not these groups are anti-nation in the classical sense. The influence of technology is a distinct problem inasmuch as its effects are often not understood until it has already made a fundamental change in our life. De Benoist quotes H.M. McLuhan in this regard as “the speed of information” is reaching the point where a total involvement of the “entire community” becomes not only possible but unavoidable. We note how McLuhan's thinking, under the influence of his mentor Harold Innis, and his student Walter Ong, was meant to explain a new post-literate tribalism within Western culture [see Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and more importantly, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man].

The Problem of Democracy is a small book. However, the problems it describes are many, and the possible solutions along with its analysis have required innumerable volumes. With this in mind, where does the book fit within the scheme of political science literature? The book is quite suitable for either an advanced high-school civics class, or an introductory political science course at the university level, especially if assigned with ancillary material showing ways that could provide solutions to perennial problems Alain de Benoist enumerates. In trying to fit this small book into the tradition of all that has gone before we are reminded of Dr. Johnson's dog: when someone attempts to condense the problems of democracy into such a small package one may not be surprised to find that it has not been done well, but only that it has been done at all. Alain de Benoist has, however, done it very well. Very well, indeed.



1 The book's editor John Morgan indicates that he was unable to find this particular quote within Aristotle's Politics. It is because de Benoist paraphrases. The actual quote, from Book III Chapter 11:

“The principle that the multitude ought to be supreme rather than the few best is one that is maintained, and, though not free from difficulty, yet seems to contain an element of truth. For the many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which the many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse.” [translation: Benjamin Jowett edition].

Uh, OK?

Looks to me like this piece and its subject is starting off completely on the wrong foot.  Abuse of "democracy" (note the quotation marks) leads to the death of a government that is accountable to its people and to the ascent of a tyranny.  De Benoist errs greatly with the claim of Europe having a lack of autocratic tyranny (or as he puts it, "absolute despotism"); in fact, such type of government has existed for great swaths of the continent's history.  Actual democracy has to be paired with rule of law, and that law guaranteeing basic freedom; also the form of government must never exclude separation of powers between legislative, executive and judicial (and there is a great lack of separation of these powers in the Brussels government of the European Union, where you basically have a toy parliament that cannot write its own laws but instead rubber-stamps the laws that the unelected Commission both writes and passes).  So be careful with claims that democracy has "problems", when the actual problems are the non-adherence to its principles.

@ olog hai

First, it is not clear from your words that you read the book instead of my review.  If not, I encourage the former since a review can be but a sketch of a book's argument, and in any case is dependent upon whatever the reviewer wants (or thinks is important) to highlight.  If this particular review is not sufficient, I take the blame.

De Benoist's book, at the same time, is quite compact and, as such, one is required to make certain adjustments when approaching his arguments.  The topic of European despostism comprises four pages with 21 footnotes referencing particular statements.

As far as the "principles" of democracy?  That is one of the problems.  Where are the principles found, and what are the arguments for and against?  Considering the scope of the book in conjunction with its length, de Benoist does a respectable job.  Its worth in part consists in getting thinkers such as yourself to expand on the problem(s) and then coming to appropriate conclusions.