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The Enemies of Democracy Are Not Threats from Without But from Within

Tzvetan Todorov. The Inner Enemies of Democracy. Polity: 2014. Todorov, Honorary Director of Research at Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique, The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, examines here the history of the twentieth century in search of democracy’s enemies, and finds, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and world communism, that democracy’s enemies lie not without, but within.

He includes here not just a rise in populism but of mass media and sound bite-driven demagoguery, which he defines as “identifying the concerns of the majority and proposing to relieve them by resorting to solutions that are easy to understand but impossible to apply.” This will sound instantly familiar to those who have listened to Tea Party “solutions” since 2008.

While he is not the first to make this observation that the enemies of democracy lie within, it is nevertheless important to note his dismissal of the oft-cited threat of terrorism, noting that “Islamic terrorism (or jihadism) is not a credible candidate for the role of enemy that was formerly held by Moscow.”

Todorov instead argues that “a certain use of freedom can be a danger to democracy”:

Democracy secretes within itself the very forces that threaten it, and the novelty of our time is that these forces are superior to those attacking it from outside.

Worse, he says,

Combating and neutralizing them is all the more difficult because they claim to be imbued with the democratic spirit, and thus have every appearance of legitimacy.

He is not, as you might think, talking about the Religious Right or the Koch brothers, about either theocracy or corporatocracy, though he admits the threats he is discussing “are not the only internal threats to democracy.” Readers looking for elucidation of those threats will have to look elsewhere.

Here, Todorov is not interested in a comprehensive list of threats, but only, he says, those threats with which he has familiarity. Despite having spent the first third of his life in a totalitarian state, he is focused on the threat posed by an overabundance of liberty:

The people, freedom and progress are constituent elements of democracy, but if one of them breaks free from its relationship with others, thus escaping any attempt to limit it and erecting itself into a single principle, they become distinct dangers: populism, ultraliberalism, and messianism. Those inner enemies of democracy.

Todorov warns of political messianism, “messianism without a messiah” – a secular form of the end justifies the means thinking – which has not heaven in mind, but “establishing the equivalent of heaven on earth,” or “temporal salvation.”

Todorov’s point is clear: ideological crusaders are as dangerous as religious crusaders, and he offers us three examples of political messianism:

  1. The French Revolution;
  2. Marxism/Communism;
  3. Imposing Democracy by bombs.

Among the latter attempts to “bring the good” he includes Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) and most recently, our intervention in Libya (2011), where, he notes, the security of the United States was not at stake, and which, uniquely of the three, had UN authorization. This sort of “justice,” as he points out (in company with many others), is highly selective.

Even Obama’s foreign policy, he says, depends ultimately on an expression of American responsibility born of America’s unparalleled strength, neither “divine” nor “by consensus” but our status as “the world’s most powerful nation.” This, he says, “is how might is enabled to pass itself off as right!”

Todorov cites French philosopher and political scientist Nicolas de Condorcet, who put is thusly:

“The moment has come for a new crusade, and it has a far nobler, and holier object. It is a crusade for universal liberty.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. This is a refrain repeated by our own neoconservatives.

Todorov points out that, “None of these supporters of freedom for all wondered whether deciding the future for other peoples in this way might not violate the principle of universal equality which they defended elsewhere.”

Leading revolutionary activist Condorcet may have found more holiness than he hoped for, as he died from an excess of universal freedom after being arrested by revolutionary authorities in 1794.

In all three cases we see what Todorov calls “spirited activism,” the idea expressed, to paraphrase revolutionary leader Saint-Just during the French Revolution, that “Once the good has been attained, it will of course need to be ‘perpetuated.'”

The good in a democratic society? Why, equality and freedom in the name of democracy of course. Unfortunately for Saint-Just, too much of this “good” perpetuated him right to the guillotine.

There is some satisfying irony in Condorcet and Saint-Just being victims of what they said needed to be perpetuated, but the irony is less amusing if we see that our democracy can – and has – become a victim of our own zeal for democracy.

Communism was the next phase of political messianism, relates Todorov, and communism fully embraced the ideal of might is right, which was unfortunate for those who stood against it because, as Lenin put it, “Marxism is all-powerful because it is true.”

This capital-T-type truth – and anything that stands in its way must be swept aside – was no more open to debate in communist circles than it is among our own Religious Right, and it is unfortunate that Todorov does not follow this very inviting avenue of thought.

Todorov turns instead to neoliberalism, which he refers to as “a new phase in the evolution of liberalism” in opposition to totalitarianism. Ayn Rand (who, like Todorov, grew up in a communist country) he labels a “neoliberal propagandist.”

He argues that neoliberals “distance themselves from the laissez-faire of classical liberalism and advocate a form of state intervention that can speed up history, namely the systematic elimination of any barrier to competition.” Ultraliberalism is, he argues, yet another phase in this progression. Ultraliberal ideology opposes any intervention or controls by the state.

This sounds like Ayn Rand. It does not sound like liberalism, which, after all, came up with the United States Constitution, establishing an entirely unique system of government on the earth, full of controls via an intricate system of checks and balances.

As we can readily see, and know from experience, ultraliberalism is not liberalism at all. In fact, as Todorov points out, ultraliberalism in its devotion to unbridled economic forces, “violates the basic principle of liberal thought, which is the limitation of one power by another.”

Nor, he warns, are ultraliberalism and totalitarianism “as radically opposed” as their adherents claim. Ultraliberalism, says Todorov pointedly, is not only totalitarianism’s enemy, but its brother.

A rather chilling thought, but one we are seeing proved before our very eyes in the early years of the twenty-first century.

The Inner Enemies of Democracy is a very readable book, and a very important one.

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  • My only contention would be with the assertion that:
    ideological crusaders are as dangerous as religious crusaders.

    Among a culture of Believers,
    to invoke God as both Source and Spirit is, in my judgment, to trump all possible challenges -all possible objections- and to excuse all possible tactics.

    And while, for example, "Truth" may not have been debatable under Russia's Communism, the suppression was by brute force alone. Absence of debate was largely by virtue of Compliance.

    By contrast, cooperation with God-rooted ideology is, within a believing culture, by virtue of Internalization, or at the very least, by virtue of Identification.

    God-based cultural movements will, among the bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, always trump the competition.

    • By denying that there are secular movements as destructive as religious zealotry and trying to isolate only religion as a destructive force, we risk missing the power of ANY internalized ideology that converts to a system where there is absolutist power of the few over the many. One cannot dismiss Russia, China, Pol Pot and other utterly non-religious dictators so easily. The wholesale threat to humanity can be found in secular as well as religious zealotry. Both are willing to kill opponents, torture, oppress rights, etc. He is correct in his analysis.

      • Yours is a "straw man' argument.
        I neither stated, nor insinuated ...trying to isolate only religion as a destructive force. My point was clearly that religious zealtry trumps the others.

        If you would like to address this argument
        I would be pleased to consider it.

  • In fact, the European use of "liberal" is almost diametrically opposed to ours: for "neoliberal", read "neocon"; for "ultraliberalism", read, "Chicago-school socioeconomics".

    • Had to cut a few things out in the interest of space, but it is worth noting too that Todorov calls “neocons” a “confusing term because they are not actually conservative” - but they are not actually liberals either.

  • What I am getting here is that conformity is the only path to any real freedom, and in conforming one loses some of their freedom anyways. Extremism on any end of any theology is always a path to an end.

    I agree pushing ones ideology on others is going to extremes

    • Conformity is, to me, just another word for "unity". I believe in strength of numbers when approaching important issues.

      The bigger the numbers, the more strength, the larger chance of success.

      And although I believe in having and keeping one's own thoughts and opinions - and allowing them to evolve through better understanding of an issue, in politics, I'm a big believer in, "United We Stand. Divided We Fall" and "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link".

  • “Ultraliberal ideology opposes any intervention or controls by the state. This sounds like Ayn Rand. It does not sound like liberalism, which, after all, came up with the United States Constitution, establishing an entirely unique system of government on the earth, full of controls via an intricate system of checks and balances.”

    Nope. Ayn Rand was not the anarchist that this implies her to be. She was a strong advocate of government intervention to protect individual rights. She was also a big fan of the Constitution (with one or two caveats). However, the controls and checks and balances you speak of were placed on the government by the people, not vice versa.

  • The purpose of terrorist attacks on countries like the U.S. is to terrify us into reacting the way we have. When we give up on our freedoms in order to attack the way our enemies wanted to attack, we lose. Big time.

  • Although his musings have some merit but only if those elements are pushed to the extreme. I have seen little evidence in this nation that the left is it's own worst enemy. What is abundantly clear with an overwhelming amount of fact is that the Right wing is what we all must fear the most. They are the most dangerous to freedom and democracy in even the most docile and benign of manifestations. The Right Wing is like nitroglycerin or fulminate of mercury, touchy and dangerous in any amount.

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