Democracy and its discontents – 28.04.2014

In Civilization and Its Discontents (“Das Unbehagen in der Kultur”, 1930), Freud argued that the individual’s quest for instinctual freedom, that is to say his primary drives, are intrinsically opposed to the requirements of civilization, which therefore inevitably gives rise to dissatisfaction and neurosis. As the net effect of civilization is to increase unhappiness, Freud finds in it a paradox, which he does little to elucidate. Civilization seems to be a force above man, a deus ex machina to which he is unwillingly subject. But, if so, how has this come about, historically, biologically, sociologically and economically?

Let’s take a step back.

The 18th Century

Edmund Burke was one of the most important theorists and defenders of representative government, viewing parliamentarians in Platonic terms. He was deeply sceptical of democracy, but aware he needed at least a fiction of legitimate rule consistent with the common interest:

it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” [1]

However, although Freud’s psychoanalytical perspective was new, his misgivings were not.

Rousseau’s political project was a response to the social inequalities he criticized in 1755 in his Discourse on Inequality, also known as the Second Discourse. In the Second Discourse, Rousseau posits that civil society arose out of a usurpation of power which leaves the vast majority of mankind in a worse state than without it. “Le premier qui, ayant enclos un terrain, s’avisa de dire « Ceci est à moi », et trouva des gens assez simples pour le croire, fut le vrai fondateur de la société civile.” [2] Much of the history of liberal political thought from Rousseau onwards may be thought of as an attempt to rectify institutions the (net) utility of which was nevertheless always open to question.

Rousseau took his concept of the social contract from Thomas Hobbes, but differed markedly from the latter in his view of human nature. Hobbes – writing in the course of the English Civil War – considered that, notwithstanding the artificiality of government, were it not for it the state of mankind would be one of complete disorder, a bellum omnium contra omnes. “In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” [3]

Rousseau, with his vision of the “noble savage”, né libre mais partout dans les fers [4], begged to differ. The observed tyranny of government with its unfair social outcomes was contrary to natural law:

L’inégalité morale, autorisée par le seul droit positif, est contraire au droit naturel… puisqu’il est manifestement contre la loi de nature, de quelque manière qu’on la définisse … qu’une poignée de gens regorge de superfluités, tandis que la multitude affamée manque du nécessaire.” [5]


Some went further than others in their mistrust of state authority. Notwithstanding his social agenda, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was opposed both to the encroachments of the State on personal liberty and attempts to replace it with a monolithic ideology of collective ownership. He wrote regarding the collectivist Louis Blanc, a forerunner of Marx, that:

M. Blanc ne cesse d’appeler à l’autorité, et le socialisme [according to Proudhon’s conception] se déclare hautement anarchique ; M. Blanc place le pouvoir au-dessus de la société, et le socialisme tend à faire passer le pouvoir sous la société ; M. Blanc fait descendre la vie sociale d’en haut, et le socialisme prétend la faire poindre et végéter d’en bas ; M. Blanc court après la politique, et le socialisme cherche la science. Plus d’hypocrisie, dirai-je à M. Blanc : vous ne voulez ni du catho­licisme, ni de la monarchie, ni de la noblesse ; mais il vous faut un Dieu, une religion, une dictature, une censure, une hiérarchie, des distinctions et des rangs. Et moi je nie votre Dieu, votre autorité, votre souveraineté ; votre État juridique et toutes vos mystifications représentatives […]. Implacables théoriciens de l’autorité, que proposez-vous donc que le gouvernement auquel vous faites la guerre ne puisse réaliser d’une façon plus supportable que vous?” [6]

Proudhon called himself an anarchist and is often considered one of the fathers of that tradition, though he might be more accurately described as a libertarian socialist. His views on the role of government end up being not so very different from someone who in other ways might be thought his nemesis, Friedrich Hayek, one of the founding figures of modern libertarianism. This video explains:

Does voting make any difference?

We have seen, then, that the idea that representative government, universal suffrage and political parties assure an inclusive democracy and the ultimate pursuit of the common interest is at best a hypothesis which we should be careful not to dehistoricize into an item of faith. There is certainly no consensus to this effect within the philosophical tradition. Intellectual (as opposed to purely military) challenges to the established order, far from being a recent phenomenon (and much less a sign of veritable lese-majesté), have been the means by which political structures have adapted and changed ever since the demise of the Ancien Régime.

Let’s now listen to Russell Brand talking to Jeremy Paxman in a widely-aired interview which has shaken the political class.

Brand’s argument seems to be that politicians, of whatever stripe, form part of a political establishment which is more concerned about its own survival than about the real-world problems of citizens, and still less the transnational problems facing the planet. It seems that almost half of the UK electorate indeed shares his disaffection. Although Brand does not eschew voting out of principle, he considers that only a radical innovation in what the political marketplace can offer, and perhaps in how it is organized, would give rise to an alternative real enough to be worth campaigning for.

For Hobbes, the idea that one could benefit from the fruits of social order and yet opt out of the social contract – effectively free-ride – would have been unthinkable. “The aspiration for more justice and right seemed to him merely an intellectual confusion”. [6a] Nevertheless, as can be seen from the brief overview above, whatever one may think of it there is absolutely nothing unprecedented in this sort of criticism. Furthermore, the reaction of outrage which it has provoked on the part of many commentators (see some of the choicest put-downs here) is a typical phenomenon at moments of social change, being as true, and no doubt more so, of social revolutions as of scientific ones.

Rousseau, revisited

Increasingly there are other, perhaps less flamboyant voices than Brand’s challenging the current order too. French economist Thomas Piketty for instance, who in his recent in-depth study Capital in the 21st Century [6b] argues that capitalism, to date, has on the whole served only to exacerbate inequality (see summary here, or click here to read the foreword to the book). This raises the question of whether the social contract envisaged by Rousseau is worth, any longer, the paper it is (not) written on. Marx famously predicted that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction due to the endless accumulation of wealth in the hands of a relatively small elite; and, indeed, even Aristotle considered there were limits on the degree of inequality compatible with democracy: “Everywhere inequality is a cause of revolution, but an inequality in which there is no proportion … and always it is the desire of equality which rises in rebellion“. [6c] The recent rescues of the banking sector and austerity measures imposed in a number of European countries may have been accepted, reluctantly, in the short run as necessary to avoid calamity, but they have hardly been popular and it is not yet clear where the seismic shifts in peoples’ sense of fairness in the political system which these developments have engendered will ultimately lead. Here is Piketty discussing his research:

What is “the Establishment”?

The idea of a self-serving political establishment which always succeeds in buying off challengers has led from time to time to the wildest of conspiracy theories, as recently pointed out by Adam Curtis. This critique by anthropologist David Graeber of the “vast apparatus” needed to underpin capitalism is typical. Political scientists have tended to be of little help in elucidating this alleged phenomenon, but sociologists have begun to turn their attention to it.

Although the idea goes back to Burke, and even Plato, Emile Durkheim was one of the first to point out that the social conditions of political decision making militated against direct democracy. In his view, “it is collective sentiments, diffused, vague and obscure as they may be, that sway the people.” Rather than will, which Durkheim saw as far too unstable, he too thought decision-making should be guided by wisdom. Indeed, Durkheim even suggested that monarchical France was more truly democratic than post-war France. [7] It has also been pointed out that the secret ballot, whilst avoiding direct pressure upon voters at the moment of voting, also absolves them of the need to justify their choice to their peers and therefore undermines the social dimension of political dialogue. Representative democracy can approximate the common good only if either the latter can be equated with the statistical aggregation of the desires of each individual or representatives possess a moral compass which entirely sets aside their personal interests: both are hazardous assumptions. The social dimension of the political process is therefore indispensable. As Jon Elster has put it:

The conceptual impossibility of expressing selfish arguments in a debate about the public good, and the psychological difficulty of expressing other-regarding preferences without ultimately coming to acquire them, jointly bring it about that public discussion tends to promote the common good” [8]

Moreover, the increasing narrowing of the public space which characterizes current social trends in Western countries, together with the increasing difficulty to maintain the quality of public service broadcasting in the internet age, would appear only to accentuate this crisis of representative democracy.

Yet the problem of the average voter is arguably less related to uncertainties in her true preferences or a supposed tendency to put personal above collective interest, than it is to lack of access to the political process and the limitation of choices available in the political marketplace. Deliberative democracy, in Pierre Bourdieu’s view, cannot rest on merely procedural grounds or institutions as Habermas, for instance, would have it. The reasons for this have to do with the unequal distribution of social capital, with symbolic domination (that is, assumptions regarding worldview which are embedded in language), and with the rules which are proper to the political field. Whilst these factors are not immutable, neither are they anywhere near as malleable as conventional democratic theory would suggest or presuppose. To put it in other words, a humanism such as Habermas’s, which is based on abstract legal concepts of equality, is blind to the reality of power relations in society. A social order freed of domination cannot simply be created by fiat.

Whilst I very much doubt he is aware of it – although who knows – Russell Brand, therefore, is no more than a brilliant populariser of ideas already expressed by Pierre Bourdieu more than thirty years earlier. “Le champ politique exerce en fait un effet de censure en limitant l’univers du discours politique et, par là, l’univers de ce qui est pensable politiquement“. [9] And “La dernière révolution politique, la révolution contre la cléricature politique, et contre l’usurpation qui est inscrite à l’état potentiel dans la délégation, reste toujours à faire“. [10]

Let’s try to unpack some of those thoughts. For Bourdieu, the political field, as any field, is characterized by rules of the game which none of those involved in it, whatever their position in the field, i.e. in this case on the political spectrum, have an interest to question. These shared understandings ensure the autonomy of the field, immunizing it from destabilization by those social forces whose interests it does not serve and who are therefore excluded from it. Bourdieu speaks of the “mystere du ministere“, thereby asserting an equivalence between the role of the political representative within the political field and the role of priests in the field of religion, an assimilation made even more explicit here by the term of “cléricature“, evoking also the anticlerical ideology of the French revolution. This relationship has the character of a metonymy, a vicarious ministry whereby the representative no longer merely represents, but incarnates the will of the people.

In order to establish oneself within the political field, it is necessary to adopt the values and language which characterize it, thereby alienating almost all prospect of discontinuous change other than by violent means. Revolutionaries literally have no language in which to express themselves, and are condemned to defeat if they are foolish enough to engage on the terms of the enemy. By transferring the locus of collusion to language and explaining its origins endogenously, Bourdieu’s major contribution is to explain how fields can appear to act as monolithic entities without the need for inexistent and implausible mechanisms of explicit coordination. At the same time, the social conditions which produce this outcome will continue to produce it if all that is assailed from without are the elites themselves. This explains, in a powerful and intuitively convincing way, the phenomenon whereby outside challengers ‘go native’ once they are within the system. It is not a proof of hypocrisy or malevolent intention; it simply responds to the internal logic of reproduction which characterizes the field.

Personally, I find this understanding both sobering and empowering. On the one hand, Bourdieu invites to a realistic appraisal of the difficulties of achieving social change, but on the other he narrows down the social conditions of its possibility, allowing a vast range of seemingly unproductive strategies to be discarded. It is probably fair to say, however, that even if Bourdieu regularly expressed faith in the ability for society to change (“ce que le social a fait, le social peut défaire“) he offers little in the way of a prescriptive framework to achieve such change discursively.

Questions for discussion

Imperfections in our knowledge cannot, of course, absolve us of the need to choose a course of action, to decide on a trajectory and a strategy of social engagement, and to position ourselves in relation to the possibilities which are open to us, however much we may bemoan their limitations. What, then, are some of the practical questions which arise?

  • Do movements like Occupy achieve a political impact, or are they futile?
  • What is the role of culture in aligning the behavior of the political class with the common interest, and is this role increasingly attenuated?
  • Popular dissatisfaction with the political process has been expressed in the rise of numerous new political movements in recent years. These fall into a bewildering variety of categories. Some, like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, seem to have been assimilated within the pre-existing paradigm. Others, like Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle, or the Pirate Party movement, remind the established parties that they have work to do to reestablish trust, but seem to have no real ideology or coherent platform of their own. Still others, perhaps the vast majority, occupy a populist, anti-immigrant position, seeming to miss the target of expressing dissatisfaction with the political system entirely, displacing popular ire to more immediate and visible grievances. What is the significance of these movements for existing parties and the political system?
  • What can we learn from those political realignments which have taken place historically? How were they brought about, and how effective have they been? Does history provide unequivocal support for Bourdieu’s pessimism, or can we be more hopeful?
  • What is the particular role and responsibility of education, as both source of social capital and means of reproduction of the values of the dominant class?
  • If government cannot be relied on to pursue the common interest, should it at least be limited in its functions, and how might such a limitation be achieved? Are libertarians anti-social egoists, or political realists who value freedom above all else?


General background resources

An introduction to the second discourse of Rousseau by Steve Smith at Yale (45 min) is here. There’s also a podcast (1h15) over at the entertaining philosophy podcast The Partially Examined Life.

On Pierre Bourdieu, the ‘hit’ documentary La sociologie est un sport de combat is a good place to start, here with English subtitles (about 2h15). Astonishingly, it has never been aired on French television.

Russell Brand’s article in the New Statesman is also worth a read.



[1] The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. Volume I (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1854), pp. 446–8. Burke himself was not taking too much of a risk in any case: he sat for all but six years of his parliamentary career for a pocket borough.

[2] “The first person who, having staked out a plot of land, ventured to declare ‘This belongs to me’, and found people foolish enough to believe it, was the true founder of civil society“. Rousseau, Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes

[3] Leviathan, Ch. XIII

[4] “Man is born free, but everywhere he is in shackles“. Rousseau, Du Contrat Social.

[5] “Moral inequality [by which Rousseau meant social inequality, as opposed to natural variation in human endowments], which is permitted only by positive law, is contrary to natural law… since it is evidently against the law of natural, however one might define it, … that a handful of people possess everything imaginable, whilst the hungry multitudes go without basic necessities“.

[6] “Mr Blanc never ceases to appeal to authority, whereas socialism is highly anarchical. Mr Blanc places power above society, whereas socialism tends to make power subject to society. Mr Blanc derives social life from on high, whereas socialism seeks to cultivate it from the bottom up. Mr Blanc is infatuated with politics, whereas socialism is guided by science. ‘Stop your hypocrisy,’ I would say to Mr Blanc. ‘You want to be rid of catholicism, monarchy and nobility, but it seems you have need of a God, a religion, a dictatorship, a censorship, a hierarchy, distinctions and ranks. As for me, I deny your God, your authority, your sovereignty; your state of law and all of your representative mystification […]. Remorseless theoreticians of authority, what then do you propose, which the government on which you wage war could not bring to pass in a more acceptable way than you could?’” Proudhon, Système des contradictions économiques, éd. Rivière, p. 247

[6a] Sabine, G.H. & Thorson, T.L. , A History of Political Theory, 4th edition (1973), p .436

[6b] Piketty, T., Le Capital au XXIe siècle, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2013, ISBN 978 2021082289; translated as Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, ISBN 978 0674430006

[6c] Aristotle, Politics, Book V, 1301b

[7] Durkheim, Professional Ethics (1950)

[8] cited by Julien Talpin, “Elitisme et déliberation dans la pensée politique de Pierre Bourdieu”, in Sens Public, Oct. 2003, p.13 []

[9] “The political field exercises, in fact, an effect of censorship by limiting the universe of political discourse, and, in this way, the universe of what is politically conceivable.” Cited ibid, p.7

[10] “The final political revolution, the revolution against the political priesthood, and against the usurpation which is latent in delegation, has yet to be engaged.” Bourdieu, Langage et pouvoir symbolique, ed. du Seuil, 1982, p.279




3 thoughts on “Democracy and its discontents – 28.04.2014

  1. Thank you for an inspiring introduction. I think it can be helpful for the discussion about democracy to look into the Icelandic situation. A lot of people had high hopes(including me) about the Icelandic people being able to lead the world as an example of a true democratic process lead by all constituents and not just a selected group of people. Below you find a link to a conference by Brigitt Jonsdottir, Icelandic parliamentarian and member of the Icelandic Pirate party. She explains the work that has been done in Iceland to co-create a new constitution and the reasons that this constitutional process finally failed. There is an introduction on internet freedom and privacy rights, which to her are essential to the democratic process and to human rights and they represent an important part of her work in parliament. Or, you can start watching at 6:00, when she really gets into her political work and the democratic innovation in Iceland.

  2. Pingback: Privacy and Freedom in the Internet Age – 16.06.2014 | Le Salon Brussels

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