Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred by John Lukacs

The past as a lens on our present
I first read John Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (2005) in 2006 and then again in 2009. I’ve gone back to it before for some quotes (herehere & here), but for obvious reasons I’ve returned to it again this election season. Lukacs is a sage; not infallible, but certainly wise. There are comments that he makes with which I disagree, but his breadth of knowledge and depth of insight make any disagreements tolerable and call into question my suppositions; a very good thing.

Democracy as a form of rule—rule by the people, or in the name of the people—is a relatively new phenomenon, especially on the scale of the nation-state as it developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. Before this, the people could influence rule by mob actions or rebellions, but they were not granted any formal voice in affairs. Now, as Tocqueville so presciently described, we live in an age of democracy. (And Tocqueville is Lukacs’s most important source on this topic.) Along with the rise of democracy, we see the development of (classical) liberalism and conservatism (or reaction), depending on the temper of the times and individuals. With the French Revolution, we get the idea of Left and Right, which, according to Lukacs, retains more validity than do current classifications of “liberal” or “conservative.” Conservatives today in the Republican Party are those who promote (at least until this election cycle) rampant capitalism and free-market economic ideology and tend to deplore government (military functions excepted). Liberals (Democrats) favor capitalism with a welfare state; capitalism-lite, the unwanted calories being taken out by a social safety net. But with the rise of Trumpism to the national stage in the form of a demagogue with all the markings of a huckster, we have to consider populism. And here is where Lukacs excels. For populism and nationalism have become two of the most common forms of political belief of that marked the 20th century and now the 21st.

Worthy of Tocqueville, Burkhardt & Huizinga
Lukacs draws upon his vast knowledge of 20th-century history, to distinguish different political movements. The nationalist socialism of Adolf Hitler was the most important and nearly triumphed in Europe. Lukacs explains the difference between nationalism and patriotism (not at all alike) (quote), and he essays the implications of ideas about popular sovereignty, public and popular opinion, snobbery, class distinctions, and the difference between fear and hatred that allow us to appreciate these phenomena.

Here I’ll stop and let Lukacs speak. His sentences, even in the midst of paragraphs, pages, and chapters, have aphoristic quality to them that beg for consideration on a sentence-by-sentence basis:

Is democracy the rule of the people, or, more precisely: rule by the people? No: because it is, really and actually, rule in the name of the people. (5) 

[P]erspective is an inevitable component of reality; and all perspective is, at least to some extent, historical, just as all knowledge depends on memory. (7)  

The “Right,” by and large, feared and rejected the principle of popular sovereignty. The “Left” advocated or supported or at least would propose democracy. It still does. The “Right,” for a long time, was not populist. But now often it is – which is perhaps a main argument of this book. (18)  

Hitler, for one, was an idealist not a materialist: an idealist of a dreadfully German and frightfully deterministic variety, and a believer in the power of ideas over matter. These men know how to appeal to the masses – something that would have filled Maistre with horror. They knew (as did Proudhon but not Marx) that people are moved by (and at times even worship) evidences of power, rather than propositions of social contracts. (24)  

Marx and Marxism failed well before 1989 – not in 1956 and not in 1919 but in 1914. For it was then that internationalism and class consciousness melted away in the heat of nationalist emotions and beliefs. (43)  

[Marx] entirely failed to understand what nationalism (beginning to rise all around him) was. His heavy, clumsy prose droned and thundered against Capitalism and against the State. Hardly a word about the Nation; and, of course, not even the slightest inkling (true, alas, of most political scientists even now) that State and Nation are not the same things. (43)  

This brings us to what is perhaps the fundamental Marxist (and also economic; and often liberal) misreading of human nature. This is the – alas, still near-universally prevalent – belief that the world and its human beings consist of matter, and what the latter think and believe is but the superstructure of material “reality.” But the opposite is true. (45)  

What a governs the world (and especially in the Democratic age) is not the accumulation of money, or even of goods, but the accumulation of opinions. “Opinion governs the world”: a profound truth, uttered by Pascal, more than three hundred and fifty years ago, in the age of the absolutist monarchy of Louis XIV. (45)  

That opinions can be molded, formed, falsified, inflated has always been true. But it is the accumulation of opinions the governs the history of states and of nations and of democracies as well as dictatorships in the age of popular sovereignty. (46)  

Every human event has multiple causes; and the cause-effect relationship in human events does not accord with the cause-effect relations in mechanical causality. And it is really not enough to ascertain the pathogenesis of events (as, too, in the case of physical illness); we must now attempt to find something about their etiology. (78)  

[T]he history of ideas (indeed of all human thought) is inseparable from the history of words. (117)  

Freedom and freedoms; restrictions of freedoms, the wish – or appetite – for freedom, indifference to freedoms – these are difficult and problematic matters, and perhaps especially during the democratic epoch. To regard freedom simply as an emancipation from chains, as an absence of restrictions is of course insufficient. Aristotle knew that it is more difficult to be free than not to be free. That political freedom does not exhaust the meaning of freedom ought also to be obvious. (129-130)  

That there were, after all, only a small minority of communists worldwide is but one proof of the melancholy human condition: the unwillingness of most people to change their minds, even within the site of clear and definite evidence. (133)  

I put “conservatism” within quotation marks – because there was (and still is) so much in American “conservatism” that it was (and is) not conservative at all. (151)  

As the former liberal meaning of democracy devolves toward populism, the danger of tyranny by the majority arises. . .. The majority is not inherently right for having been a properly elected majority; a majority, like an aristocratic minority, or like a monarch, may be right or wrong; and when it is wrong, to change it or its consequences may be long, arduous, while seeming hopeless. (176)  

[T]he term “P.R.” has become a part of the American vocabulary – and soon a part of many other languages. Ever since then the functioning and the “measuring” of “public opinion” and of its simulation, or manufacture, began to overlap – as in more than one instance the purposes of public relations agents and the pollsters: the generating of publicness, even more than that of “opinion.” Thus the second transportation transformation of the American political system, from popularity contests to publicity contests, had begun. (187)  

In the life of man the decline of his powers in old age more often results in his reversion to infantile habits, to a weakening of physical, and sometimes mental, controls. There may be something similar in the devolution of a people. Again the wisdom of Johan Huizinga, the worthy successor of Tocqueville and of Burkhardt is telling. “Puerileism,” he wrote in the 1920s, is “the attitude of the community whose behavior is more immature than the state of its intellectual and critical faculties would warrant, which instead of making the boy into a man adopts the conduct of that of the adolescent age.” Lamentably enough this is not an imprecise description of recent American presidents – and then some. (191)  

In our times (I wrote for than 20 years ago), toward the end of the Modern Age, the difference – indeed, the increased discrepancy – between frame and honor has become so large that in the characters of presidents and in those of most public figures in all kinds of occupation, the passion for fame has just about obliterated the now remote and ancient sense of honor. (192)  

[A]ll thinking, including imagination, involves and depends on reconstruction; because perception inevitably depends on memory; because all cognition involves, and depends on, recognition. “We live forward; but we can only think backward” (Kierkegaard). (197) 
We have seen that, among other things, “conservative” and “liberal” have lost much, almost all, of their meanings. But “Right” and “Left,” in their widest and deepest sense, still remain with us, especially at their extremes. And now let me state something that may be startling. One of the fundamental differences between extremes of Right and Left is this: in most instances hatred moves the former; fear the latter. (203)  

We have seen that sometime after 1870 that came a change. Nationalism was replacing the older forms of patriotism, and it proved to be an even stronger and more lasting bond for masses people than their consciousness about the struggle of classes. It’s extreme representations and incarnations involve more than a dislike of foreigners. It included a contemptuous hatred of people within their own countries whom such nationalists saw as being insufficiently or even treasonably nonnationalist. This is no longer an aristocratic or even a conservative phenomenon but a populist one. It appeared in a great variety of nations and states; it attracted many revolutionary young; and their opponents soon clear learned to fear them. (204) 
But while hatred amounts to a moral weakness, it can be, alas, often, and at least in the short run, a source of strength. Hence the advantage of the Right over the Left – especially in an age of democratic populism. (209)  

Bernanos: “In the spirit of revolt there is a principle of hatred or contempt for mankind. I’m afraid that the rebel will never be capable of bearing as much love for those he loves as he bears hatred for those he hates.” (As true of elements of the Left is of the Right.) (209)

I’ll stop here, although there’s much more that I could add. But the better course is for you to read the book.