George Walford: Democracy

Neither rulers nor ruling classes impose the political structure; it grows from the ideological system, it is an attempt to provide formal expression for power-relations between the groups attached to the various major ideologies. Once this has been recognised, the development of democracy begins to appear in a different light. Commonly seen as according progressively greater rights and powers to the majority, it is better understood as the attainment of recognition by a succession of minorities, each of them smaller and more deviant than the last.

The primal social condition was not one in which the few commanded the many. When the anthropologists describe the intellectual homogeneity of the foraging communities, and their suppression of any departure from the norm, they present a virtually unrestricted tyranny of the majority; the development of democracy has consisted in a series of attempts to impose increasingly severe restraints upon this power.

The appearance of Domination in the form of authoritarian rulers, accepted by the majority so long as their actions remained within its range of acceptance, brought concentration of social power and with it limitation of the primal tyranny. It secured a degree of freedom for the minority who deviate by favouring consistency above expediency. Although these constitute the first established minority, their position was not in the first place secured by any formal recognition of minority rights. In order to preserve it they had to maintain domination; they did this, and still do it, largely by minimising the difference between themselves and the great expedient group, claiming to represent the whole community and coming closer to doing this than any of the later political movements.

Formal recognition of minority rights comes at the next stage, historically with the introduction of voting, a process which both sharpens the distinction between minority and majority and also carries the implication that the minority is entitled to its existence, able to call upon the rulers for defence if necessary. (In its later and more sophisticated stages this precision sometimes becomes a demand for proportional representation).

Each of these stages, in its different way, recognises the predominance of the majority. Domination maintains itself by confining action to what the great numbers will tolerate, and Precision accepts majority rule as a rational necessity. Now this changes.

Experience shows Precision outweighed by both Expediency and Domination. The next stage, reform, claims the majority against it to be an illusion produced by deceit, oppression, miseducation and the like. If the people were allowed to realise where their true interests lie they would support reform. Power ought to lie with what appears to be a minority.

Revolution goes farther, advocating forceful steps which it presents as the action of this true (though suppressed) majority (‘the workers and peasants’), against their oppressors. It seeks to set up ‘democratic centralism’ and ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ names for subjection of the majority to the minority.

With the advent of Repudiation comes the elimination of the majority from consideration. The general anarchist movement rejects the power, value and validity of numbers, asserting the supremacy of the individual, and the (A)-SPGB, although claiming to operate in a wholly democratic fashion, restricts its constituency to those who agree with it, dismissing the vast majority who do not as insignificant because deluded.

Throughout the series the effort has been to reduce the power of the majority; at this point restraint attains totality – and the futility of the attempt becomes apparent. Each group incurs restraint upon its effectiveness to the extent that it departs from the expediency favoured by the largest group. The anarchists, claiming the greatest freedom, are in fact the movement most severely restricted in the realisation of their distinctive ideas.

In social affairs power goes with numbers, individuals obtaining access to greater amounts of it as they express the assumptions, and gain the approval, of larger groups.

All the politicians, and the anarchists too, implicitly admit this when they seek to realise their ideas by attracting greater numbers of supporters. The ideological structure, the features and the relative magnitudes of the groups composing it, determine the degree of success available to such efforts.

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CAPITALISM OR CAPITALISM? Capitalism and the state, we frequently get told, are killers; before they appeared people lived peacefully side by side. Those who have studied the conditions of life in pre-state, pre-capitalist societies tend to take a different view. According to Marvin Harris, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Columbia, ‘infanticide during the paleolithic period could very well have been as high as 50 percent,’ and the frequency of crude attempts at abortion may account for the short life-span of females in the upper paleolithic: 28.7 years, against 33.3 for males. In our own times, among the Yanomamo of the Brazilian border, ‘raids and ambushes account for 33 per cent of adult male deaths from all causes.’ [1]

When advanced capitalism and the centralised state get close to those figures, that will be the time to start demanding that they be done away with. Whether better conditions lie ahead we shan’t know till we get there, but as knowledge of the past increases it becomes clearer that a return towards our beginnings is unlikely to help.

Harris was writing in 1977, before destruction of the rain-forest had brought the Yanomamo into the headlines. Among all accounts of their way of life that have accompanied their new prominence, how often has their tendency to slaughter each other found a mention? [1] Marvin Harris 1977, Cannibals and Kings, the origins of cultures New York: Random House 16, 35.

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HAVING grown up at a time when you didn’t use swear-words (which were called ‘language’) in the presence of women (who were called ‘ladies’), we have retained an interest in the sociology of speech. An earlier issue of IC noted that although we no longer have first, second and third-class waiting-rooms on railway-stations, we do have waitress-restaurants, cafeterias and takeaways on the motorway service areas. Helen Fielding now points out that something similar has happened with language. [2] England no longer has, as in the 11th Century, English for everyday use, Latin for scholarship and Anglo-Norman for prestige, but it does still have distinct modes of speech for particular purposes: Anglo-marketing, Anglo-TV interview, Anglo-Policeman and Anglo-train announcement for examples [2] Sunday Times, 31 January.

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COME THE REVOLUTION: Communists never have shown much interest in what society would be like after The Revolution. In such forecasts as they make, one outcome not envisioned was a return, after 75 years of communist domination in a superpower, towards something very like bourgeois capitalism.

The TLS of 7 November 1992 printed a number of articles, by various authors, offering explanations for the course of events in the USSR. Not one of them named as a major factor the persistent, almost unthinking attachment of the great body of the people to a non-communist way of life. The lack of any adequate and generally-accepted theory to account for political behaviour is confirmed by the appearance of Leszek Kolakowski’s suggestion that the Russian Revolution was a ‘calamitous accident.’ An event producing consequences extending over 75 years (and not finished yet), affecting most of the civilized world, involving hundreds of millions and bringing premature death to tens of millions, was an accident!

That appeared in a high-level intellectual journal, one that devotes much attention to social and political affairs. Can one imagine any scientific journal publishing such an ‘explanation’ of equivalent events in the physical world?

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A. E. HOUSEMAN, best known for his verse, could display a donnish acidity, as in: ‘Three minutes’ thought would suffice to find this out: but thought is irksome, and three minutes is a long time.’

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IN MOVING from less to more highly organised ideologies, the number of adherents diminishes at each step. The suggestion that the same relationship holds good over the whole range of existence is strengthened when astronomers are reported holding 99 per cent of the universe to be composed of hydrogen, the lowest-organised of atoms. (Nicholas Booth, reporting on investigations using the new ‘Rosat’ satellite. Sunday Times 28 March.)

See also George Walford: Ideology in Theory.

from Ideological Commentary Number 60, May 1993.