Democratic Totalitarianism

16 Jul 2014

Imaging the following scenario…

You woke up this morning at 6:30am, the time agreed upon the day before. You eat a nutritious breakfast of bircher muesli, the preferred choice of you and fellow 7 billion global citizens, before dressing in a snappy blue pinstripe suit for gentlemen or comfortable blazer and skirt for ladies, the majority choice as it tends to be on Mondays. You then head off to work and perform a job that was collectively decided to be the best for you. Lunch today is curry - thanks India - while soccer has been chosen as your afternoon form of recreation, as it always is - thanks again English-as-a-second-language types. You then arrive home relived (or perhaps disappointed) that you married before a global democracy was realised.

Every decision of your life in this parallel world is made democratically. What you eat, drink, wear, and do, is decided collectively - deliberated and then voted upon thanks to the marvels of technology that put a Dematron™ democracy unit in every home on the planet. The political equality of all people and the primacy of popular sovereignty is assured in this global total democracy. No choice is left for individuals to make because every choice we make effects someone else somehow. And when we couldn’t agree on exactly what choices should be left to individuals, the only logical solution was to let everyone vote equally on everything.

Whether this scenario is utopian or distopian to you will depend a lot on your preference for democracy over individual freedom. If you think that democracy is intrinsically good, then you should - at least on the face of it - think that a global total democracy is a good thing - or at the very least not bad. If you think that democracy can be instrumentally good however, because it helps us realise certain other values or ends, then its highly likely that total democracy is a rather disturbing idea.

This absolutist conception of democracy, what I call democratic totalitarianism1, serves as an important intuition pump that helps us understand what it really is about democracy that we value. Is it democracy in and of itself - that the practice of democracy is the realisation of equality, or that it ensures that they voice of everyone is heard; or is the outcomes and results of democratic processes that are most important - the epistemic virtue of democratic processes, the good policies that emerge, or the fact that no modern democracy has gone to war with another or allowed their people to starve?

The idea of democratic totalitarianism is also useful in clarifying what we mean by democracy in the first place. By democracy, do we mean a collection of political values like equality and popular sovereignty, do we mean a way to make collective decisions through voting, deliberation, or representation, or is it just a description of how political power is distributed across a society?

Now some might object that this isn’t democracy at all because the idea of democratic totalitarianism fails to realise any individual freedoms. But this objection misses the point for a number of reasons. Firstly, if a necessary condition of democracy is the realisation of individual freedoms then it is far from clear how much freedom must be realised in order for a system to be called democratic. As a form of collective rule, democracy must impose upon some freedoms, and does so with the justification that those whose freedoms are imposed upon have some say in the manor of imposition. If we relax the scenario so some freedoms are realised - say choice of food or dress - then is it now democratic on this objection?

The second reason this objection misses the point is that it conflates liberty and democracy. This conflation is certainly understandable - most democracies are also liberal democracies after all - but it is not excusable. Just as we have liberal democracies, so too can we have illiberal democracies (think Singapore), liberal non-democracies (think British ruled Hong Kong), and illiberal non-democracies (think Saudi Arabia). While related, liberalism is a distinct concept to democracy and it is demonstrable that one can exist without the other.

If you find the idea of democratic totalitarianism distopian or otherwise undesirable, then it is highly likely that you value democracy for instrumental reasons. Democracy - the rule of the demos or common people - is simply a description of how political power is distributed across society. When we live under a political system that ensures political equality and popular sovereignty, then we live in a democracy. How much freedom we have, how much we participate, whether we vote ourselves or simply elect representatives - these are simply predicates or descriptions of democracy. Conflating them with democracy itself is not helpful.

I’m not the first to conjoin democracy and totalitarianism. JL Talmon, Bertrand de Juvenal, & Sheldon Wolin have all discussed the idea of totalitarian democracy - a system of government in which lawfully elected representatives maintain the integrity of a nation state whose citizens, while granted the right to vote, have little or no participation in the decision-making process of the government (see wikipedia). What makes this scenario different is that the people play a central role in the absolutism of democracy, thereby overcoming many of the objections that ‘this isn’t democracy’.