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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