Constitutions and democracy

Mark Mardell points out that the French are changing their constitution to avoid a referendum:

The French politicians from both houses were meeting to change the constitution so they could go ahead with the adoption of the Treaty of Lisbon.

I do wonder at the imperative among Europe’s political elite that makes them behave in this manner. If they are so sure their electorates would say “no” to this messy constitution, surely the only democratic response is to take a different course?

Naive? No: I have a straightforward belief in democracy. If politicians cannot persuade the majority of their electorate of the merit of a course of action, and they believe in representative democracy, they have no conscionable choice. And yet we witness the manner of the progress of the European Project: what are we to conclude?

We often read that “there is no plan B”. Why not? Are our political leaders so unimaginative? No: Timothy Kirkhope has proposed an alternative simplifying treaty, for example, yet the machine grinds on. Perhaps the proponents of the current EU mean “there is no plan B that guarantees we will be able to enforce uniform social democracy across Europe”.

Ah: in which case, things begin to make sense. The EU’s luminaries do not believe in representative democracy; they believe they know how best to care for everyone from cradle to grave. Much has been written on that subject over hundreds of years. The clash of ideologies continues: should we nanny people or let them be?

“What sort of despotism democratic nations have to fear” by Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) foresaw much of what we are now experiencing:

I had remarked during my stay in the United States that a democratic state of society, similar to that of the Americans, might offer singular facilities for the establishment of despotism; and I perceived, upon my return to Europe, how much use had already been made, by most of our rulers, of the notions, the sentiments, and the wants created by this same social condition, for the purpose of extending the circle of their power. This led me to think that the nations of Christendom would perhaps eventually undergo some oppression like that which hung over several of the nations of the ancient world.

He goes on to characterise that despotism, and it seems familiar:

It would seem that if despotism were to be established among the democratic nations of our days, it might assume a different character; it would be more extensive and more mild; it would degrade men without tormenting them. I do not question that, in an age of instruction and equality like our own, sovereigns might more easily succeed in collecting all political power into their own hands and might interfere more habitually and decidedly with the circle of private interests than any sovereign of antiquity could ever do. But this same principle of equality which facilitates despotism tempers its rigor.

But this form of oppression is new: despotism and tyranny seem the wrong words. He foresees the world much as it is today, including the infantilization of the population, and he explains why democracy is dying :

I think, then, that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world; our contemporaries will find no prototype of it in their memories. I seek in vain for an expression that will accurately convey the whole of the idea I have formed of it; the old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new, and since I cannot name, I must attempt to define it.

I seek to trace the novel features under which despotism may appear in the world. The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives. Each of them, living apart, is as a stranger to the fate of all the rest; his children and his private friends constitute to him the whole of mankind. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, he is close to them, but he does not see them; he touches them, but he does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone; and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country.

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things;it has predisposed men to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.

After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and that it might even establish itself under the wing of the sovereignty of the people.

And he predicts that this oppression arrives without resistance:

Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their own will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions only exhibits servitude at certain intervals and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is in vain to summon a people who have been rendered so dependent on the central power to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.

Commentators often compare the EU constitution to that of the United States of America or, somewhat incredibly, suggest we are heading towards a “European Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. Yet the EU constitution is something new.

The United States Constitution follows a libertarian philosophy. The Soviet Union was a socialist effort derived from the Marxist philosophy of the abolition of private property. It is clear that the EU follows neither of these paths. No, the EU constitution follows a “third way”, a form of socialism that is at best experimental and statist, arising as it does from the failure of other forms of socialism.

So we have the bizarre spectacle of socialists who think the EU may be neo-liberal[1, 2], capitalists who think it is a socialist project and democrats who illustrate the EU’s democratic deficit to the agreement of its supporters and even the EU itself.

Whatever else the EU is, it is an undemocratic bureaucracy meeting few needs but offering the vague hope of a social utopia. It is in urgent need of reform, quite probably radical reform. What are we to conclude?

They do not mean to harm us. In fact, they mean to help us. But their ideas are out of date, their methods have failed and their advance must be derailed. — David Cameron

I suggest we conclude that it is time to support David Cameron’s Conservatives, not simply for their approach to the EU, but for their range of policies for a post-bureaucratic age.

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