Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Liberal philosophy and democracy

My reaction to the Isaiah Berlin article I discussed in the previous post is in part based on an idea expressed well by the "1st generation" Frankfurt School scholar Franz Neumann in "Approaches to the Study of Political Power" Political Science Quarterly 65:2 (June 1950).

He describes the negative views on democracy shared by two reactionary philosophers, Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and Louis-Gabriel-Ambroise, Vicomte de Bonald (1754-1840), who argued that rule by the rabble would lead to dictatorship. He also cites the classical- liberal/libertarian view which "believes bureaucracy to be inimical to liberty and attempts to protect democracy by identifying it with individual liberty against the state."

He responds to those views this way:

Both reactions base themselves on what they call the tradition of Western civilization. the kernel of which is allegedly hostility to political power as expressed in constitutionalism. This is only a partial truth and, therefore, false. The tradition of Western civilization is more complex. Its richness was hinted at when we attempted to classify the various attitudes toward political power. Certainly, one may say that Rousseauism is a more important element in the political tradition of democracy than the essentially self-contradictory and arbitrary doctrines of Locke and of the natural law. That political power (whether democratic, aristocratic, or monarchic) can be abused is beyond doubt; but it is doubtful that abuses can be effectively checked by constitutionalism. The problem of modern democracy is much less the fencing of political power than its rational utilization and provision for effective mass participation in its exercise. [my emphasis]
I'm a little more fond of separation of powers as a guarantee of freedom and stability than Neumann seems to have been.

But it gets to the positive goal articulated by Berlin. He believes that a liberal order that allows dissent has the kind of self-correcting mechanisms that would prevent a slide into dictatorship.

Neumann sees, however, that any political system can fail or be subverted if enough people are determined to do so and enough people are indifferent to that outcome. Something very much like that happened to the Weimar Republic in Germany.

Popular participation and popular rule have to be substantive for democracy to actually be at work. De-politicization can and does happen in democracies.

And in the United States, we see that Congressional war powers have effectively been abolished - for now - by decades of the Long War (Cold War and afterward). So have many Constitutional protections against government spying on citizens. The protections are still on the books, i.e., in the Constitution. Before there has to be enough popular insistence on enforcing them for them to function as they should in reality.

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