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On Living in Democracies

When modern societies are in the mood to vaunt their advantages, there is one feature they invariably single out and refer to with special reverence: we, at least, live in democracies. The superiority of the modern state is thought to be nowhere more in evidence than in its way of electing its leaders. 

For the longest part of the history of humanity, we did not come close to choosing any ruler fairly, at least outside of a brief moment in Ancient Greece. Rulers were absolute, their word could not be contradicted, their powers checked or their terms curtailed. They claimed that God Himself had appointed them, so that to question their word would be to commit at once treason and blasphemy. There was to be no limitation on a ruler from the people: only God could decide if a ruler had been unjust. An angel was said constantly to hover over the head of Louis XIV of France; Charles II of England proposed that his ascension had been a result of a mandate from heaven; when still only a child, Louis XV was assumed to have received divine authority to awe his nation.

Pierre Mignard, Louis XIV of France

Antonio Verrio, The Sea Triumph of Charles II, detail (1674)

Hyacinthe Rigaud, Louis XV as a Child, ca. 1716–24

Then, during the second half of the eighteenth century, humanity’s tolerance for undocked obedience began to crumble. It no longer seemed so clear why monarchical opinions could never be contradicted or why an aristocracy, let alone ordinary people, might not have a measure of influence over their own lives. The age of democracy had begun. Corsica became a republic in 1755, Haiti in 1791. In Britain, the First (1832) and Second Reform (1867) Acts gave the vote to a majority of the working classes. Universal male suffrage was introduced in France, the Netherlands and Denmark following the revolutions of 1848. And in 1893, New Zealand became the first country to give all women the vote. In those with an eye on the history of democracy, there was particular poignancy when, in 1844, King Otto of Greece set up a parliament in Athens and gave his country its first taste of participatory government since Philip II of Macedonia had ended Ancient Athens’s experiment with democracy (demos, citizenry; kratos rule) two thousand years before.

The Hellenic Parliament in the 1880s, with PM Charilaos Trikoupis at the podium

When President Obama visited Athens in 2016, he praised his hosts by saying that Greece, together with the United States, were the two nations that had best taught the world how to love freedom. 

Teaching the world to love liberty: President Obama, Parthenon, 2016

But despite our enthusiasm for ‘freedom’, the spread of democracy has not, in modern times, always enjoyed unquestioning or uncritical support. Grumbles have long accompanied humanity’s march towards more democratic forms of government.

At the outset, as democratic ideas first acquired popularity, many of those who had most benefited from the old order became intransigent. In the more feudally minded enclaves of Bavaria and Wiltshire, Normandy and the Veneto, reactionaries (or ‘ultras’ as they were often known) fought with bitterness against the expansion of the franchise. It was absurd for peasants or women to be offered a chance to vote when they had been passive and easily subjugated since the dawn of time. In England, the old Tory gentry were especially resistant; already in the eighteenth century, as modest moves to rectify the voting system began, they tried to undermine reform, bribing electorates, fiddling results and threatening candidates. In the satirical images of William Hogarth, we see their venality and self-interest on grotesque display. In one depiction of a corrupt campaign in Oxfordshire in 1754, we are shown two hustings, blue for the Tories, orange for the (mildly more left-leaning) Whigs. A lunatic asylum has been opened and the comatose and befuddled inmates (who can’t even write their own names), are being eagerly bribed to vote Tory. For their part, the Whigs are trading votes for cash – and cheating the electoral roll. To one side, a lady representing Britannia is crying out from inside a broken down coach, as her two indifferent drivers gamble at cards (one is also swindling the other). The moral is clear: the powers that be want elections and democracy to fail for the lowest of reasons.

William Hogarth, Polling, 1758

Yet there were more high-minded motives at play in other opponents of democracy. As democratic reforms increased in pace, in many countries, members of the old aristocracy rediscovered a love of the Middle Ages, and pointed to the sometimes selfless and gallant devotion showed by knights towards kings and queens. Whereas the promoters of democracy stressed the right of all classes to defend their own interests at the ballot box, the new medievally-minded monarchists spoke of the spirit of sacrifice and love that their ancestors had once shown their rulers. These ancestors hadn’t wanted to be ‘free’, they had wanted to serve – surely a far greater and more admirable calling, ran the argument. To express their commitment, many aristocrats took to commissioning portraits of themselves and their families in medieval dress. Shops selling copies of old armour opened up in London. In Scotland in 1839, the Conservative politician, Archibald William Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton, organised a medieval ‘joust’ on his estate, Eglinton Castle. The Earl lamented that aristocratic pageantry was disappearing from national life because of an emerging cost-saving spirit (the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 had been dubbed ‘The Penny Crowning’ by certain aristocrats for this very reason). Preparations for the joust had begun a year before the event when 150 knights gathered in an antique armor and sword shop in Bond Street. After practicing over many months in a pub garden in north London, the knights made it to the Earl’s estate where, in front of an audience of 100,000 (and a specially constructed tent filled with ‘ladies’ in embroidered dresses), they recreated scenes of fast-fading horsemanship, gallantry and courage. The Earl’s granddaughter later recalled that most of her family’s wealth had been squandered on the event – but that the Earl had never considered his joust a failure on those grounds alone, as many of the new practical money men of the era would perhaps have done.

James Henry Nixon, Eglinton Tournament, 1839

Daniel Maclise, Sir Francis Sykes and his Family, 1837

Other objections to democracy were less emotional. One rigorous tradition criticised the democratic folly of allowing a mass of largely uneducated, penniless, aggrieved and inexperienced people – many inflamed by newspapers – to vote on matters of immense technical complexity and strategic importance. Democracy was willingly allowing fishmongers to decide how to run economic policy and hairdressers to have a say in the management of the navy. These arguments  were not new. As classical scholars appreciated, one of Ancient Greece’s greatest achievements, Philosophy, had been highly suspicious of its other achievement, Democracy. In the dialogues of Plato, the founding father of Greek philosophy – Socrates – had been hugely pessimistic about the ambitions of democracy. In Book Six of The Republic, Plato described Socrates falling into conversation with a man called Adeimantus – and trying to persuade him of the flaws of democracy by comparing society to a ship. If you were heading out on a journey by sea, asked Socrates, who would you ideally want deciding who was in charge of the vessel? Just anyone or people educated in the rules and demands of seafaring? The latter of course, replied Adeimantus. So why then, responded Socrates, do we keep thinking that any old person should be fit to judge who should be a ruler of a country? For Socrates, voting in an election was a skill, not a random intuition. And like any skill, it needed to be systematically taught. Letting the citizenry vote without thorough training was as irresponsible as putting them in charge of a trireme sailing to Samos in a storm. Socrates was not elitist in the old Tory sense. He didn’t believe that a narrow few should only ever vote because a deity or tradition had decreed as much. He did, however, insist that only those who had thought about issues rationally and deeply deserved to influence affairs; he was fighting for an epistocracy, rule by the educated few. Otherwise, he feared the rise of a system that the Greeks had had fateful experience of before, demagoguery (demos, citizenry; agogos leading). Athens had allowed the louche figure of Alcibiades, a rich, charismatic, smooth-talking snake to seize power, corrupt institutions and push the city state to its disastrous military adventures in Sicily. Socrates appreciated only too well how easily people seeking election could exploit our desire for easy answers. He asked us to imagine an election debate between two candidates, one of whom was like a doctor and the other, like a sweet shop owner. The sweet shop owner would say of his rival: ‘Look, this person here has worked many evils on you. He hurts you, gives you bitter potions and tells you not to eat and drink whatever you like. He’ll never serve you feasts of many and varied pleasant things like I will.’ Socrates asked us to consider the audience’s response: ‘Do you think the doctor would be able to reply effectively? The true answer – ‘I cause you trouble, and go against you desires in order to help you’ – would cause an uproar among the voters, don’t you think?’

Many shared the doubts – and knew their Plato. They understood the risk of electing far too many sweet shop owners, and very few doctors. Prominent among these epistocrats was H.G. Wells, Europe’s bestselling author in the English language in the early part of the twentieth century. In his The New World Order (1940), Wells imagined a future where government would at last be free either of the influence of uneducated simpletons or of aggressive gangsters – and would be placed instead in the hands of a cadre of highly thoughtful, scientifically trained experts, masters in their respective fields, who would guide humanity to its true potential. Wells pictured broadcasting, education, economics, medicine and urban planning all being left to a cognitive elite. Whatever the short-term clamour from the street, these experts in government – positioned in a hall a bit like a modern space centre, filled with the latest statistics and reports, would understand that their duty was to create a state that could approximate the finest moments of Athens, Florence, Amsterdam and Jerusalem. Wells would have admired the artworks of the French eighteenth century architect Étienne-Louis Boullée and pictured his city as similarly monumental, clean, rational and entirely ordered. ‘Science has toiled too long forging weapons for fools to use,’ he wrote, ‘It is time she held her own hand.’

An epistocratic future: illustration by Étienne-Louis Boullée

But beneath some of the objections to the way democratic government was arranged, something else was stirring. The true problem was not only that there were now a lot of people voting, but purely and simply that there were now a lot of people. A basic, easily overlooked but wholly indispensable fact about the modern age is that it was, first and foremost, an age of vastly expanding populations. In 1800, the population of Western Europe had stood at 180 million; by 1914, it was 460 million. It is easy to underestimate what lay behind such numbers; it meant that, for the first time, pretty much everywhere one went, there would be crowds. The demos was not only loud, it was growing very, very numerous. There were crowds on bridges and crowds in railway stations, crowds in museums and crowds in shopping arcade, crowds at Lake Windermere and crowds at the Pyramids, crowds at the cliffs of Schaffhausen and crowds at the Mausoleum of Hadrian in Rome. The increasing interest in remote adventures – the conquest of the poles, the crossing of central africa, the opening up of the Andes – wasn’t a coincidence; it was logically symptomatic of an age being driven to distraction by a new inability to be alone.

William Powell Frith, The Railway Station (c. 1862)

Traffic on London Bridge, circa 1890. 

And yet it wasn’t numbers of people alone that was the problem. It was the perceived quality of the people. No doubt, when just a few aristocrats had made it to a certain church or waterfall, there had been a good few fools among them, chortling, braying, ruddy-faced, unimpressive sorts who had perhaps been known as Bunter or Sticky at Eton and Harrow. But simply on the basis of overall  numbers, they had been less prominent. Their frailties had not had a power to shatter the atmosphere. Now, the issues could no longer be disguised. In the corridors of the convent of San Marco in Florence, during a performance of Cimarosa’s opera Il matrimonio segreto in Milan, at a mass in the Katholische Hofkirche in Dresden or at the foot of the Bernese Oberland on the train between Zurich and Geneva, one could be certain of running into a particularly prominent kind of imbecility – at odds with the music, the heroic snow-capped peaks, the priestly voices, the tender renditions of the Virgin Mary and the opera’s melancholy heroine singing plaintively: ‘Fidatevi, Che segreta son io’ (Trust me, what a secret I am). There was always someone blowing their nose and someone asking the way to the bathroom.

Gustave Flaubert had to tried to get away from it by sailing to Egypt in 1851, but democratic idiocy followed him everywhere, as he reported in an irate letter home: ‘Stupidity is something immovable; you can’t try to attack it without being broken by it… In Alexandria, a certain Thompson from Sunderland has inscribed his name in letters six feet high on Pompey’s Pillar. You can read it a quarter of a mile away. You can’t see the Pillar without seeing the name of Thompson, and consequently, without thinking of Thompson. This cretin has become part of the monument and perpetuates himself along with it. What am I saying? He overwhelms it by the splendour of his gigantic lettering… All imbeciles are more or less Thompsons from Sunderland. How many one comes across in life in the most beautiful places and in front of the finest views? When travelling, one meets many… but as they go by quickly, one can laugh. It’s not like in ordinary life where they end up making you fierce.’

‘Thompson from Sunderland’, Pompey’s Pillar, Alexandria, Egypt

When Thomas Hardy went to the British Museum in 1891, he was appalled by how unattuned the many visitors were to the spiritually-elevated relics laid out before them: There were ‘crowds parading and gaily traipsing round the mummies…. the girls casting sly glances at young men across the swathed dust of Mycerinus. They pass with flippant comments the illuminated manuscripts – the labour of years – and stand under Ramses the Great, joking. Democratic government may be justice to man…but it will lead to more of this contempt, and possibly be the utter ruin of art and literature.’

In an attempt to render art and literature safe again, many artists decided to make their works deliberately hard to understand, so that there were would be no jokes and no flippant comments, no crowds and no flirtatious lovers. What we know as the Modernist movement was partly a calculated attempt to move away from intelligibility and charm towards mystery and elusiveness (‘I don’t see how any civilised person can watch TV, far less own a set,’ confessed the leading Modernist poet W. H. Auden). There was no danger of a mob showing up to interrupt Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou and no excited audience screaming for an encore after a performance of Arnold Schoenberg’s experimental song cycle Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten. Through abstruseness, modern artists made sure that Thompson from Sunderland wouldn’t interrupt proceedings. Obscurity would be to the arts what de-inventing the railway car or closing down the offices of Thomas Cook would have been to mass tourism.

The background problem was that ‘ordinary people’ were not quite as the early educated defenders of democracy had hoped. They weren’t particularly grateful, they weren’t especially spiritual, and they could be very direct in their behaviour. To cite a word often used by sceptics of democracy from the 1820s onwards, they were frequently deemed to be ‘philistines.’ In his book Culture and Anarchy of 1869, the poet and critic Matthew Arnold wrote that ‘Philistines are devoted to money-making and a narrow form of religion; they are indifferent or hostile to beauty; they are ‘the enemy of the children of light’.’ A century later, the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov was still refining the nuances: ‘“Vulgarian” is more or less synonymous with “philistine”: but the stress in a vulgarian is not so much on the conventionalism of a philistine, as on the vulgarity of some of his conventional notions. I may also use the terms “genteel” and “bourgeois”. Genteel implies the lace-curtain refined vulgarity, which is worse than simple coarseness. To burp in company may be rude, but to say “excuse me” after a burp is worse than vulgar.’

For many sceptics of democratic life, the real problem with the new philistines was that they were particularly focused on making money, a logical enough concern for those who had had little option but to dwell in poverty since the beginning of time. In a protest against the overbearing and apparently unnatural cupidity of the modern age, sceptics emphasised other values: impracticality, a loathing of money, disinterest in being on time, eccentricity and a love of ‘useless’ art. The poet and dandy Gerard de Nerval, in a turn against the hurried pragmatic commercial spirit of his time, acquired a pet lobster in 1840, which he tied with a leash made of blue silk and took for walks in the gardens of the Palais-Royal in Paris. ‘Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?’ he asked, ‘or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? I have a liking for lobsters. They are peaceful, serious creatures. They know the secrets of the sea, they don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s monadic privacy like dogs do.’

If there was one detail that especially enraged mass society’s sceptics, it was the tendency of ordinary people – from the 1860s onwards – to consume large quantities of canned food (mushrooms, peaches, pink salmon and spam especially). For the sceptics, nothing better summed up the philistines’s alleged concern for ease and practicality over quality and authenticity than their enthusiasm for cans. Figures as diverse as D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells and Graham Greene denounced cans bitterly. ‘We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun,’ concluded George Orwell.

Objections to the democratic age evidently ranged from the profound to the very silly. But if one were to single out one resonant and meaningful complaint, it was that democracy had begun as a way to elect leaders by the vote of a majority, and yet – at its worst – it had now spread far beyond its original remit; it had become a way of deciding the worth and significance of anything by the verdict of a majority: what a good book might be, how to go on holiday, how to judge one’s career or arrange one’s love life. The most pernicious aspect of life in a democratic society was a constant quiet pressure to conform, to fall in line with a majority-based view of what might be ‘normal’ and congruent with what everyone ese happened to think.

For the French aristocrat, politician and writer Alexis de Tocqueville, travelling around the United States in 1831, the distinguishing mark of democracies was not so much their way of choosing leaders as their way of thinking. There was a such a thing as a ‘democratic mind’, and it was not, for de Tocqueville, an especially flexible or admirable organ. Such a mind hated to be different, it had tendencies to squash new and unfamiliar ideas and it cleaved closely to whatever happened to be fashionable. It was seldom, therefore, very interesting – and it could often be unkind. De Tocqueville suggested that he did not know of any country in the world where there was ‘less independence of mind, and less true freedom of discussion, than in America.’

A similar verdict was delivered in a now substantially democratic Britain by John Stuart Mill some thirty years later, when in On Liberty (1859), he criticised all democratic societies for their tendencies subtly to bully those trying to lead different lives. What he called ‘the tyranny of the majority’ was in certain ways even worse than the tyranny of an absolute ruler, because – said Mill – this tyranny was so righteous in its own eyes. In a famous plea against nosiness and interference of any kind, Mill wrote: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant … Over himself, over his body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’

Put another way, Mill and de Tocqueville were pleading for the primordial importance – even in a democratic society – of the right to be left alone to be a little weird. Just because an enormous majority (amplifying its thoughts through the mass media) happened to think a particular way, one retained the right to approach matters very differently indeed.

Mill and de Tocqueville had realised how easy it is to remain, in a democracy, extremely unfree. There may be no shackles around one’s legs and one may be politely invited to vote for a leader every four or five years but we may all the while still be fixed rigidly into place by a terror of departing from the majority of view, for example, of how to run a marriage or approach a career, handle one’s holidays or think of friendship. We are all so much stranger than we allow ourselves to be – held into place by concepts of normality unjustly formed by strangers to whom we should never have given dominion over our souls. We get interesting only when we start to rattle the bars of our socially-enforced cages – but so seldom give ourselves license to try.

The heroes of, and guides to, how to live well in a democracy have been certain lively, playful, eccentric figures who have felt generous and unthreatened enough by mass society to enjoy its genuine, singular pleasures (who have known how to have fun at the beach and at the nightclub, at the cinema and with a fashion magazine) but who also retained sufficient independence of mind not to be crushed by the will of the majority in its less compassionate or creative moments. They knew how to conform and rebel.

Such heroes might be said to include Virginia Woolf, who took a keen interest in fashion, in popular music, in magazines and films, in new foods and shops. In an essay titled Oxford Street Tide (1932), she delivered an implicit rebuke to George Bernard Shaw who had said that the survival of civilisation depended on bombing Selfridges – and wrote a paean to shopping in the department stores of her capital: ‘Oxford Street, it goes without saying,’ she conceded, ‘is not London’s most distinguished thoroughfare. Moralists have been known to point the finger of scorn at those who buy there, and they have the support of the dandies… But as one saunters towards the sunset—and what with artificial light and mounds of silk and gleaming omnibuses, a perpetual sunset seems to brood over the Marble Arch—the garishness and gaudiness of the great rolling ribbon of Oxford Street has its fascination. It is like the pebbly bed of a river whose stones are for ever washed by a bright stream. Everything glitters and twinkles… The great Lords of Oxford Street are as magnanimous as any Duke or Earl who scattered gold or doled out loaves to the poor at his gates. Only their largesse takes a different form. It takes the form of excitement, of display, of entertainment, of windows lit up by night, of banners flaunting by day. They give us the latest news for nothing. Music streams from their banqueting rooms free. You need not spend more than one and eleven three to enjoy all the shelter that high and airy halls provide; and the soft pile of carpets, and the luxury of lifts, and the glow of fabrics, and carpets and silver.’ In her novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), the eponymous heroine is no less entranced by the commercial chaos of popular London: ‘the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands, barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’ And yet, despite moments of such euphoria, Woolf refused to let majority opinion decide all aspects of her life. She also knew to go against the grain when she needed to: to have lesbian affairs, to live with other couples in surprising arrangements, to defend feminism, to champion unpopular artistic causes, to write difficult books – and to break down when her emotions demanded it.

A similar freedom attended the life a figure who would have surely have adored (and painted) Woolf if chronology had allowed. Like Woolf, Andy Warhol relished aspects of the mass society he had been born into. He saw nothing wrong with industrially produced food: it had made rather than endangered America. 

                  Andy Warhold, Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962 

‘What’s great about this country,’ he explained, ‘is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good.’ Much the same was true of burgers; he repeatedly praised their democratic dignity and bounteousness and their ability to cure homesickness, given that one might have exactly the same branded meal in Rome as in Munich, in Taipei as in New York. But he would also refuse to take any of it for granted. He wanted to study mass culture, observe it through the eyes of of art and sometimes not just eat hamburgers but make a four and a half  minute film of himself doing so, to stress the surreality and unnoticed bathos of some of modernity’s iconic moments.

Andy Warhol, Burger King, 1982

And like Woolf, in other areas of life, he would have the courage to be different, not to do what everyone from Liz Taylor to the President to the soccer mom might think was typical: to live with men, to sleep at odd hours, to have a range of unusual friends, to spend his money heedlessly on certain things he especially enjoyed, to wear lipstick and a wig, to cry in front of other men, not to say what everyone else did, to be free inside.

We may have learnt how to be free at the ballot box. But we are still only at the beginning of knowing how to be free in the depths of our own lives. The challenge of the future will finally be to throw off the last great yoke that remains: the feudalism of our minds.  

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