Mill’s dangers of democracy

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

In 1859, the same year that the first commercial oil well went into production in Titusville, USA, J.S. Mill published On Liberty, a seminal political text focused on “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual” (Mill 1975: 3). His outline of the historical ‘development’ of the concept of democracy is useful in a very broad initial glimpse of a process whereby Promethean ideology is perpetuated and social change is prevented. Mill’s view of the development of democracy will be outlined below and thereafter commented on.

Mill (1975: 3) begins his outline of the development of democracy by stating that in “old times” liberty meant “protection against the tyranny of the political rulers”. The description provided by Mill of these times is one where ‘the rulers’ – “a governing One, or a governing tribe or caste, who derived their authority from inheritance or conquest” (1975: 3) – were oppressive towards ‘the ruled’; as Mill grants, the rulers could use their power against enemies and thereby serve something of a useful protective purpose for the ruled, but there was nothing to stop the rulers from using the same powers against their subjects. Liberty in this scenario is a limitation of rulers’ powers: “The aim, therefore, of patriots was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty” (1975: 3 – 4). Mill (1975: 4) goes on to identify two methods of establishing such liberty: the first was to obtain

 a recognition of certain immunities, called political liberties or rights, which it was to be regarded as a breach of duty in the ruler to infringe, and which if he did infringe, specific resistance, or general rebellion, was held to be justifiable. A second, and generally a later expedient, was the establishment of constitutional checks, by which the consent of the community, or of a body of some sort, supposed to represent its interests, was made a necessary condition to some of the more important acts of the governing power.

This transition from the unrestrained power of tyrants to the limitation of rulers’ powers by “constitutional checks” (ibid) is an important step in the direction of democracy, but for democracy to exist in its most basic form, the ruled must be able to elect the rulers – this is indeed the next historical political phase that Mill identifies, one where the “magistrates of the State” (1975: 4) are the “tenants or delegates” of ‘the people’ and can be revoked from the seat of power and influence via the process of elections. These are important characteristics to this emergence of democracy: the rulers are “identified with the people” (1975: 4) and the rulers’ “interest and will” is the “interest and will of the nation”:

The nation did not need to be protected against its own will. There was no fear of its tyrannising over itself. Let the rulers be effectually responsible to it, promptly removable by it, and it could afford to trust them with power of which it could itself dictate the use to be made. Their power was but the nations own power, concentrated, and in a form convenient for exercise.

In this second stage towards the development of democracy, liberty is clearly conceived of entirely differently to that of the first stage. In the first stage, as has been discussed, liberty is liberty from the oppression of rulers; in the second stage, liberty is liberty to elect representatives of ‘the people’ who then act on behalf of the people’s best interests and in this way achieve a kind of self-governance. After discussing the second stage towards the development of democracy, however, Mill is quick to point out that the “true state” (1975: 5-6) of the political situation was historically soon to be recognised as somewhat more complicated than conveyed in the second stage:

The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community, that is, to the strongest party therein.

This is where Mill employs the well-known phrase, ‘the tyranny of the majority’: “’the tyranny of the majority’ is now generally included among the evils against which society requires to be on its guard”. Initially, Mill identifies the tyranny of the majority “as operating through the acts of public authorities” (1975: 6), so the spotlight is still on the political rulers who represent the interests of the majority; these rulers can still be voted out of office via elections, presumably to be replaced by another body of rulers who represent the interests of the majority. A viscous circle, however, should here be apparent, one where the faces of the ‘rulers’ are sure to change, but where such change of person or party distracts from the particular type of political system being entrenched over time as the different political ‘entities’ come and go.

The fourth and final stage in the development of democracy as seen by Mill is an extension of the third stage: the third stage involves the tyranny of the majority by means of public authorities, as discussed; the fourth stage sidesteps the public authorities. Mill begins referring to the self-tyrannising aspects of ‘society’: “its means of tyrannising are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries” (1975: 6). Instead, society is identified as an entity with the ability to infringe on personal liberty via “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling”. It is unsurprising that this stage occurs chronologically after the previous one where there ‘the people’ gradually become accustomed to the notion that a change of political person or party in power is a justified kind of political change, rather than, for example, focusing on whether or not the consent of the majority of people who vote as the basis for establishing political authority is rationale enough to assume that all people in a society should submit to such an authority. ‘Universal’ tacit consent to power therefore is assumed and popularised on a political level, which gradually spills over into the social realm, wherein the same kind of ‘democratic’ rationale arises: power is established on the basis of the notion that ‘the majority call the shots’, a notion that needs no justification other than itself. Mill (1975: 6) sees the tyranny of the majority as far “more formidable than many kinds of political oppression”:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own.

Needless to say, Mill’s recommendation of “protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling” was not heeded, a fact that will be established in later sections of this chapter – if it is not already clear from a mere glance at the contemporary ‘advanced’ industrial neoliberal free-market capitalist world as described in Chapter 3. Continuing, Mill (1975: 62) identifies the dominant medium of his time –  the newspapers – as instrumental in the process whereby the ‘prevailing opinions and feelings’ of society are spread: “the mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing them or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment, through the newspapers”. Mill (1975: 85) later refers to newspapers again when he speaks of his ‘age’ as an “age of newspapers, railways, and the electric telegraph”. These are all technologies that allowed ‘popular opinion and feeling’ to spread at increasing speeds, taking with it the assumption that majority-rule is justification enough for ‘universal’ consent to political power.

Already, enough about Mill’s views on the dangers of democracy has been summarised in order to make a few pertinent observations about the “superbly effective propaganda apparatus” (Kovel 2002: x) referred to at the start of this section. To begin to comment initially on the first three stages: as per Mill’s historical outline of the ‘development’ of democracy, in the first stage rulers are distinctly different from the ruled in that the former are explicitly the power-holders; in the second stage it is naively held that power is equally distributed throughout society because each person, via voting, is symbolically represented by the elected person or party; in the third stage the naiveté of stage two is recognised – as Mill says (already quoted), the “’people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised”, and caution is raised about the tyranny of the majority, or as Mill says (already quoted), about the tyranny of the majority “who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority”. These three stages and their characteristics are uncannily well situated within the historical context of the development of ‘the Promethean’ as detailed in chapter three. In that chapter it was shown that one crucial factor that paved way for the dominance of the Promethean was the reign of the Roman Catholic church, which widely (and often violently) eliminated opposition to its own dogmas and simultaneously enforced ideological stances where humankind is granted dominion over the earth. This era seems to correspond well with the first stage of Mill’s outline of the development of democracy, where rulers are described as despotic – indeed, feudalism, with all its connotations of despotism, reached its height during the reign of the Church. This epoch lasted explicitly for approximately a thousand years, so its accompanying assumptions about dominion were well ingrained into the collective human psyche when during the Renaissance and Enlightenment the second stage of democracy described by Mill seems to be operational alongside the various scientific explorations of humankind’s technological abilities in the name of ‘progress’. The relevance to Mill’s analysis here is that the scene was being set in relatively young democracies for the fostering of the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling – which can now be called Promethean.

It also needs to be pointed out that Mill’s warning, indicative of the third stage – that the “’people’ who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised” – is all too relevant considering that for the bulk of the history of democracy, white capitalist males with powerful business interests have occupied seats of political power. To evidence this point, one can access the lists of the presidents of the United States of America, and the Prime Ministers of England – two of the most powerful forces behind the globalisation of Promethean business activity, activity that had been occurring prior to the widespread commercial use of oil, and which such use accelerated exponentially. These lists provide glimpses into the aristocratic family backgrounds of the leaders, which is to say family backgrounds that owe their economic fortunes to the exploits of explicitly Promethean capitalist business interests. So much can be added here about the atrocious qualities of some of these Men who are commonly heralded prominent in the legacy of democracy – Abe Lincoln ‘owning’ slaves, for example – but space constraints do not permit such additions; the information, however, is widely available. What is quite certain is that, despite exceptions to the rule, the political powers that be who get to run for election are members of a class “who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority” – or better, a class that has succeeded in making its economic views accepted as the views of the majority – due to the economic and political privileges that have been synonymous with power for at least a few centuries. This line of thought is relevant to Mill’s fourth stage in the development of democracy, whose main feature is that of “prevailing opinion and feeling” (already quoted) which Mill situates within the context of the mass media. The mass media are products of the technology of advanced industrial society (Promethean), are saturated with capitalist advertising (Promethean), extensively promote materialist ideology (Promethean), and have their agendas set to appeal to the ‘prevailing feelings and attitudes of the time’. With the exception of the internet, which has only been in widespread use for approximately twenty years, the mass media have worked explicitly to promote Promethean ‘business as usual’, at the expense of the possibility for significant social change away from the neoliberal capitalist paradigm.

Finally in this section, to provide a specific example of just how relevant Mill’s observations about the dangers of democracy are when it comes to the “superbly effective propaganda apparatus” Kovel refers to, consider the case of the South African ‘revolutionary’ ANC that was to replace the National Party of Apartheid: the ANC was explicitly communist prior to its victory in the 1994 elections, and immediately thereafter explicitly perpetuated the well-established capitalist practices of the rest of the Western world. In this example, ‘the majority’ was seemingly the disenfranchised black and coulered peoples of South Africa marginalised under the Apartheid government, but this view would be misleading. The ‘national’ majority was instead overshadowed by an ‘international’ majority in a globalised world where the media largely promote specific Promethean interests (as they have done for more than a century and a half, considering Mill’s warning about the newspapers of the mid-19th century), interests that the ANC government clearly prioritise with its explicit capitalist interests and focus on ‘economic development’ – which has been shown to have disastrous consequences for ecology. More about this, as well as other issues that have been raised in this section, will be explored in the section called ‘Democracy in a neoliberal free-market capitalist system’.