Familiar Democracy *Can* Work

We here at the Orthosphere are skeptical about the prospects for any merely democratic political order. As has been common knowledge since Plato, democracies are vulnerable to the excesses and errors of the mob, to the suasions and blandishments of sophists and scoundrels, and their political discourse to a rapid devolution toward the lowest common denominator – a race to the bottom, in every way. They tend to vice and imprudence.

The only sort of democracy that might have therefore any very good likelihood of success would be a republic characterized by such constraints of the franchise as to constitute it an aristocracy wherein the aristoi – the electors, ergo their elect – were raised from among hoi polloi by some other principle than a mere accident of heredity (not forgetting that such excellence in life as befits and tells aristoi is largely after all an outworking of just such accidents – so that a merely hereditary aristocracy has a fair shot at working out over the long run).

A democracy not somehow tempered by differentials of political authority and influence could not be other than a war of all against all. What could there be in such an order that would motivate men to agree to abide by the decisions of any political procedure whatever? What would prevent them from flouting every policy they did not like? Why would they abide by verdicts or votes that their part had lost? Why, in short, would they cede the tiniest jot of their own natural political authority to any other? Why would not every man go just his own way, weapons free, and devil take the hind most? What could prevent him, but force?

So is it as Plato saw that democracies are wont to turn tyrannical.

Considering these prior questions, it is clear that there can be no such thing as mere democracy, because in it there can be no kratia, no just admixture and coordination of opinions. The only way to secure agreement is for men – all men – to submit to authorities, and surrender to them their loyalty, giving them priority over their own divergent opinions about what they ought best next do.

[All men: in a true kratia, no man may be, or think himself, above the Law; the Law, on the contrary, must emit the odor of sanctity, and its transgression must seem abominable and damnable to all men, whatever their station (cf. the dreadful horror of Richard III looking back on his crimes as he realizes his doom is nigh)(cf. also the submission of Henry II to public flogging for the crimes his courtiers had committed on the body of St. Thomas à Becket). A tyranny is a state ruled by men who think they are themselves the Law, or that they may change it at whim, or that there is no Law – these are all ways of saying the same thing. Tyrannies cannot then be just, except momentarily and adventitiously, for they are not even trying.]

What is the source of social adherence? Why do men tolerate each other, and do business with each other, of any sort? We take this for granted, because it is inherent to our sort of animality. We are social creatures, with allegiances to each other. But why? Why do men feel loyalty, and pledge it, and then honor such pledges, even unto death? Why do they risk death, and die, for their duty to their lord? Why did young men ever volunteer by thousands and millions to go to war for their fatherland?

Well, consider: what other sorts of persons are men so naturally eager to protect that they willingly sacrifice their lives in so doing? Their families.

I do not mean to suggest that fealty in general is nothing but familiar loyalty. There is more to it than that. But it is at least that, however attenuated. Men agree to abide by the decisions of the polis because they take that polis to be their own, in just the way that their wives (who might be even of foreign stock) are theirs, or that their brothers in arms are theirs.

There is propriety in all such relations. As “my beloved is mine, and I am his,” so am I my lord’s man, and he my lord. “This land is my land;” “my country, right or wrong;” “compadre,” “compatriot,” “comrade.” There is mutual ownership among men; it comes with mutual love, which is their will toward each other’s good; such is duty.

Where it is not queered by exogenous factors, or faked, or perverted by great sin – by great treason against the Law of the polis – that mutuality is even. It balances out, quite naturally and without special arrangements or the exertion of force. How not, since we have conservation laws? The ledgers must all somehow balance. So is much given to the king, and everything expected of him, to the limit of his life. Authority is costly, and beneficial, in both directions. It binds and domesticates all poles of the relation to each other. The peasant has a certain claim on the king’s person, his property and indeed his life, his very body; and the true king reckons and admits of it.

Raw democracy, then, is not feasible. We find democracy everywhere, for every society – and every social order – cooks up from immediate social transactions proceeding among mere men, as such alike, and so able and inclined to agree, so that as distributed across a whole population, and ever vulnerable to wholesale abandonment, any social order is in a sense democratic. But wherever we find democracy, it is cooked: tempered, modulated and structured by authority and loyalty, by Law and custom and bonds. These work among fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, between brothers and cousins. They extend to in-laws and distant relations, to the township, to her metropolis, to the nation. They are not all familiar relations, of course, but are all somehow like them; they partake of the same forms that have their palmary and archetypal instantiations in and between families. A friend is not a brother, but is always at least a bit like one.

A democracy not yet ordered by more formal relations of aristocracy but enough cooked by such familiar relations could succeed. The tighter and denser their familiar relations, and the fewer strangers and outlanders they had in their midst, the more could its members find themselves naturally committed to each other as to their own, to give way to each other for love or duty, and so agree in harmony. In such polities, laws might be few, for all their men would be of like minds and habits, more or less, so that most things would go without saying.

But where familiarity is weak or attenuated, as with large or diverse populations, we find men hedged about with a dense prickle of law and regulation, of formal legal procedures and protocols – and policed commensurately. Such polities tend to political paralysis, to bureaucracy, and then to timor and inevitably la trahison des clercs, thence finally to moral despair: to the collapse of morale and of limits.

But then also do we find that democracies everywhere are so far cooked by structures of authority as to have thrown up at least a de facto effectual aristocracy, whether or not it be recognized by anyone as such. There is always an oligarchy.

As decided originally in face to face conversation, the method of elevation is basically democratic: men take each other’s measures directly, and quickly settle upon their most appropriate leaders. The less familiar the society, the more will such decisions presuppose mutual antagonism and suspicion, rather than common interests and mutual affection: the process of devising and administering political regulation will itself then more and more call for political regulation.

In short, the more familiar the society, the better the chance that democratic elevations of aristoi will occur organically, justly, and rationally; the less, the worse. Democracy works best then in smaller, more homogeneous groups than in other sorts; but it cannot work ever except under an aristocracy.

25 thoughts on “Familiar Democracy *Can* Work

  1. Pingback: Familiar Democracy *Can* Work | Neoreactive

    • Yes. The Church has always had this concept of subsidiarity – keeping things on the most local, possible level. It fosters loyalty and love for the nearest things, and this helps to inspire loyalty and love even for the more remote things. If a man does not love his home, his neighbourhood, his parish on the corner, he won’t love his country or his civilization more generally.

      This is why traditional Christian society favoured the guilds, the different strata of aristocracy, the proliferation of parishes and chapels (as opposed to mega-churches, etc.), local rites and varieties of customs, devotion to the saints of this town, this neighbourhood, etc. Kristor is right to say that an aristocracy and a love of excellence will arise naturally when society has an emphasis on loyalty to the local, the intimate, the familiar.

  2. Democracy and Socialism both work in small, homogeneous settings. In large settings like that of America with 320 mill people these things can’t work.

    I think a more pragmatist approach is necessary without the hindrance of ideology. If democracy and socialism were to work in this context I would advocate it, Since they don’t I am opposed.

    The Union can stand but what it needs is an authoritarian order with a set of goals and an interest in achieving it’s own particular destiny.

    • “Democracy and Socialism both work in small, homogeneous settings.”

      Nope. I reflect on this point every time I attend an HOA meeting. What the cluster does not need is idiotic “democracy”. What the cluster needs is good government.

      The ultimate small, homogenous setting is the family. Everyone (presumably) loves everyone and wants good things for them. Is the best government for the family democracy or socialism? Hell, no. It is paternal leadership. Feminism and no-fault divorce has brought more democracy and more socialism to family life – with clearly destructive consequences.

      • I reflect on this point every time I attend an HOA meeting.


        That the king, father, mayor, burgomaster, etc rules for the common good and not his own selfish gratification is a given. Attempting to replace him with mechanical procedures (e.g. democracy) however accomplishes mainly one thing: the destruction of accountability.

  3. Pingback: Familiar Democracy *Can* Work | Reaction Times

  4. “A friend is not a brother, but is always at least a bit like one.”
    CS Lewis in Four Love marks the distinction. The love in family is Affection–the most biological of all loves–to be found even in dogs and cats.
    Friendship is the most spiritual of all loves and most specifically human. The hallmark of friendship is the shared truth that the friends appreciate. The erotic lovers seek to possess each other. The friends are possessed by the common truth.

    There is limit to one’s affective relations. Affection requires shared time and is thus limiting. But friendship has no such inherent limitations. Thus, a polis bound by civil friendship can be as large as it could be. A clan ruled by family relation is self-limited in contrast,

    The attempt to reduce polis to family is fundamentally a lack of appreciation of what friendship is and total neglect of the role of truth in human politics. An appeal to clannish societies as found in Somalia or Afghanistan. There you will find people who trust their brothers and appreciate their clan.

    • The attempt to reduce polis to family is fundamentally a lack of appreciation of what friendship is and total neglect of the role of truth in human politics.

      Again, Vishmehr, you succumb to your characteristic error of thinking that I am trying to reduce one thing to another, when I do not. From the OP:

      I do not mean to suggest that fealty in general is nothing but familiar loyalty. There is more to it than that.

      Or the line you quote in your very comment:

      A friend is not a brother, but is always at least a bit like one.

      The four loves are different. They are not simply the same thing. But they are all loves, and so they are similar; are all types of the same thing.

      And this: animality does not drive out spirituality, or vice versa. On the contrary; indeed, it does not even drive out divinity, for God is incarnate as an animal. We should take it as an honor that we share familiar affections with such noble creatures as our fellow mammals.

    • You act as if they are mutually exclusive categories. My best friend, whom I have known for 17 years, I love like a brother. We are affectionate, we are also possessed by the common truth. Behold the icons of Virgin and Child, especially those called “glykophilousa” (“sweet-kssing”). Is the affection of the Virgin for her divine Son merely animal? Never has there been a greater, mutual possession by Truth.

  5. Vishmehr @ As I recall, Lewis wrote that friends were possessed by the same love, not the same truth. Two men are friends, not because they loved each other (eros), but because they both loved fishing, or Norse mythology, or drinking beer. And these relationships had to be intimate. The Inklings gathered for beer and conversation at the Eagle and Child–they were friends in a small snuggery. The grifters gathered in some vast hotel for a conference of the MLA are not. One reason friendship evaporates as the circle of “friends” expands is that the object of their mutual love becomes more abstract. The two men who “love fishing” actually love a concrete experience of fishing in a particular place, etc. The Inklings loved particular languages and literatures. As a polity united by civic friendship expands, the object of its shared love becomes an abstraction. Here in the USA we say were are united by our love of “freedom” and “equality.” This myth worked, more or less, so long as most people tacitly agreed on the content of these formal expressions. We said we loved freedom and equality, but really we loved the freedom to do certain things and equality in certain respects. As our polity has grown, diversified, and become more conscious of that diversity, we have discovered that friendship cannot be built on abstractions.

  6. I don’t know, Carlyle / Moldbug still had a very good insight here. Namely that when a lot of people – and that means not only the demos, often the aristoi are also too many – have a say in things, things tend to balloon up. The whole have a say in itself plain simply generates too much communcation, debate, parliamentarism, talk, talk, talk, which is simply an overhead, but then having a say evolves into having all kinds of institutions and offices generated, and then you end up with fat bureaucratic government. The genius insight behind absolute monarchy is not that those guys would so good at governing – they shouldn’t govern at all, they should just install one and only one truly competent guy like Mazarin or Richeileu and then basically go back watching ballet. Then that guy hires as many advisors as he needs and then the whole system of government is still lean and there is not too much talk.

    So their insight is that having a say, not even democratically, but even if 5% of the people are aristoi and if only those all want to have a say, it balloons things up unnecessarily.

    The Roman Republic was familiar enough and had a fairly small upper crust. And look at basically how all were involved in politics, everybody tried to become praetor or a military general or something, to grab power. It is this vying for power that is the problem with even small republics. OK they avoided the ballooning, but they had other problems. For some reason in the modern world such problems are solved by creating more and more praetor positions.

    • Excellent point, Shenpen. I do not at all disagree. My objective with the title of the post was to convey the notion, “Familial democracy can possibly succeed, although it almost never does.”

  7. I want to imagine a town controlled by one corporate restaurant. Let us imagine that the restaurant is the only one in town, and it is not easy (but not impossible) to leave this town. Most people are born and they die in the same town. Let’s also imagine that the Town’s people voted every four years on the management of the restaurant. The owners of the restaurant choose two candidates, and the Town’s people vote on one candidate to act as manager. The management then decides what the people will eat for the next four years, and what all the town’s people will pay for the benefit of having a restaurant in their town, and who can eat at the restaurant, and how often, and how much they have to pay for a meal. Would this be a democracy in the ancient sense? Would Plato’s critique of democracy be applicable to such a system? If we give the management power to incarcerate town’s people, and conscript them into armies, does it change anything?

    • That doesn’t sound like a democracy in the ancient sense, so without having thought about it too much I doubt Plato’s critique would apply to it. It sounds a lot like what we have today: democracy in name only.

  8. The nice republic leaves out competition with other states. The geopolitical calculus is that it is generally better to become as big as you possibly can, and to spread your influence as widely as you can (or ally with an imperial power that can protect you), the better to protect yourself against rivals–a good offense always being the best defense. A political analysis that leaves out the essential matter of national security (and the geopolitical incentives resulting from the need for security) is hopelessly naive. The Imperium is the “natural” form of government, if you have the military and cultural power to pull it off. While one might be skeptical of the benefits of diversity, the need for the management of diversity is a side effect of a successful imperial power.

    • Yes. I take it as obvious that democracy cannot succeed at the imperial or federal level, but can in principle have a shot – poor, but a shot – at succeeding at the level of the far smaller polis, nation, state.

      • I think Neoreactionary writers are wrong in making an equivalence between what we call modern “democracy” and “democracy” in the Greek polis. We call our system “democracy” for propaganda purposes, it bears almost no similarity to Ancient Athens. Now certainly, the corruption of the current elites, the limits of a society dominated by a financial aristocracy, the implausibility of trying to have a state without any nation, and bread and circuses are fair game.

  9. It might be pointed out that the whole point of democracy–from the standpoint of a political agent–is to get around leaving important decisions to the voter. Referendums are good for passing legislation that would get passed anyways. Robert Caro’s book, The Rise and Fall of Robert Moses, outlines how Robert Moses, while never elected to office, was able to impose his will on New York State, and no one other than FDR was able to stop him for decades. You have to look at party hierarchies, political machine politics, donors, government bureaucracies, “NGO’s” like the KKK or the Mafia, and mass media to understand modern democracies (“money is speech” as both Oswald Spengler and the US Supreme Court in Buckley v. Valeo noted). The whole point is to make the actual vote irrelevant to the actual political decisions made by the government, by making it beholden to donors and institutions. The benefits of democracy, to the extent that they exist, are primarily stable transitions of power, checks on flagrant corruption, and a modicum of free speech and other liberties. Nor do we have to worry about whatever clowns are elected, we only have to worry about the political views of the donor class. Maybe the Singapore model, as the Chinese have tried to scale it up, is workable, or even better–I don’t know. History will tell us, and I suspect that the Chinese system wouldn’t work in America or European nations for cultural reasons.

    • The whole point is to make the actual vote irrelevant to the actual political decisions made by the government, by making it beholden to donors and institutions.

      Bingo. There is always an oligarchy. The trappings of democracy legitimize their rule, that’s all, under the iron rule that people support what they feel they have had a hand in creating.

      • A little more. Democracy enhances the power of those who are skilled in manipulating crowds. It enhances the power of verbally skilled liars and psychopaths. So, while it legitimizes the elite it also makes that elite ever less worthy.

      • Exactly. This is why our current oligarchs are so desperate to regain control of the medium of discourse, so that they can continue to shape the propaganda. To vote honestly (as opposed to cynically or ironically) is to buy their narrative and own it.

        But it seems they might be failing. Samizdat has never been cheaper, easier or more pervasive.

      • One way to look at it is how you can construct a system where what most people think and say has basically no impact on how the society is actually governed (and can therefore be permitted without state interference), but also gets “citizens” to invest in that system. I think the civic ritual of voting is critical here.

      • Just so. But for the voting to have that soporific effect, hoi polloi must believe in what they are doing when they vote. This can happen only if they find the narrative credible – i.e., conform their understanding to its categories.

        Media saturation these days is ideal for creating an artificial milieu, quite divorced from concrete reality, but possessing a strong internal logic (so long as it isn’t examined too closely – prevention of such mental focus being the reason for all the extraneous motion and noise onscreen), that can stand in people’s minds for the real world, and upon which they can operate intellectually so as to arrive at the “correct” conclusions, or the “correct” *sort* of conclusions.

        This is why Bruce Charlton is so correct in his emphasis that the media are an evil enterprise.

        Hat tip: Happy Acres


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