The Life-History of Democracy

In the preceding four chapters there has been developed, in a clumsy laborious way, a smudgy, imperfect picture of the generalized civilized state of the coming century. In terms, vague enough at times, but never absolutely indefinite, the general distribution of the population in this state has been discussed, and its natural development into four great—but in practice intimately interfused—classes. It has been shown—I know not how convincingly—that as the result of forces that are practically irresistible, a world-wide process of social and moral deliquescence is in progress, and that a really functional social body of engineering, managing men, scientifically trained, and having common ideals and interests, is likely to segregate and disentangle itself from our present confusion of aimless and ill-directed lives. It has been pointed out that life is presenting an unprecedented and increasing variety of morals, ménages, occupations and types, at present so mingled as to give a general effect of greyness, but containing the promise of local concentration that may presently change that greyness into kaleidoscopic effects. That image of concentrating contrasted colours will be greatly repeated in this present chapter. In the course of these inquiries, we have permitted ourselves to take a few concrete glimpses of households, costumes, conveyances, and conveniences of the coming time, but only as incidental realizations of points in this general thesis. And now, assuming, as we must necessarily do, the soundness of these earlier speculations, we have arrived at a stage when we may consider how the existing arrangements for the ostensible government of the State are likely to develop through their own inherent forces, and how they are likely to be affected by the processes we have forecast.

So far, this has been a speculation upon the probable development of a civilized society in vacuo. Attention has been almost exclusively given to the forces of development, and not to the forces of conflict and restraint. We have ignored the boundaries of language that are flung athwart the great lines of modern communication, we have disregarded the friction of tariffs, the peculiar groups of prejudices and irrational instincts that inspire one miscellany of shareholders, workers, financiers, and superfluous poor such as the English, to hate, exasperate, lie about, and injure another such miscellany as the French or the Germans. Moreover, we have taken very little account of the fact that, quite apart from nationality, each individual case of the new social order is developing within the form of a legal government based on conceptions of a society that has been superseded by the advent of mechanism. It is this last matter that we are about to take into consideration.

Now, this age is being constantly described as a "Democratic" age; "Democracy" is alleged to have affected art, literature, trade and religion alike in the most remarkable ways. It is not only tacitly present in the great bulk of contemporary thought that this "Democracy" is now dominant, but that it is becoming more and more overwhelmingly predominant as the years pass. Allusions to Democracy are so abundant, deductions from its influence so confident and universal, that it is worth while to point out what a very hollow thing the word in most cases really is, a large empty object in thought, of the most vague and faded associations and the most attenuated content, and to inquire just exactly what the original implications and present realities of "Democracy" may be. The inquiry will leave us with a very different conception of the nature and future of this sort of political arrangement from that generally assumed. We have already seen in the discussion of the growth of great cities, that an analytical process may absolutely invert the expectation based on the gross results up-to-date, and I believe it will be equally possible to show cause for believing that the development of Democracy also is, after all, not the opening phase of a world-wide movement going on unbendingly in its present direction, but the first impulse of forces that will finally sweep round into a quite different path. Flying off at a tangent is probably one of the gravest dangers and certainly the one most constantly present, in this enterprise of prophecy.

One may, I suppose, take the Rights of Man as they are embodied in the French Declaration as the ostentations of Democracy; our present Democratic state may be regarded as a practical realization of these claims. As far as the individual goes, the realization takes the form of an untrammelled liberty in matters that have heretofore been considered a part of social procedure, in the lifting of positive religious and moral compulsions, in the recognition of absolute property, and in the abolition of special privileges and special restrictions. Politically modern Democracy takes the form of denying that any specific person or persons shall act as a matter of intrinsic right or capacity on behalf of the community as a whole. Its root idea is representation. Government is based primarily on election, and every ruler is, in theory at least, a delegate and servant of the popular will. It is implicit in the Democratic theory that there is such a thing as a popular will, and this is supposed to be the net sum of the wills of all the citizens in the State, so far as public affairs are concerned. In its less perfect and more usual state the Democratic theory is advanced either as an ethical theory which postulates an absence of formal acquiescence on the part of the governed as injustice, or else as a convenient political compromise, the least objectionable of all possible methods of public control, because it will permit only the minimum of general unhappiness.... I know of no case for the elective Democratic government of modern States that cannot be knocked to pieces in five minutes. It is manifest that upon countless important public issues there is no collective will, and nothing in the mind of the average man except blank indifference; that an electional system simply places power in the hands of the most skilful electioneers; that neither men nor their rights are identically equal, but vary with every individual, and, above all, that the minimum or maximum of general happiness is related only so indirectly to the public control that people will suffer great miseries from their governments unresistingly, and, on the other hand, change their rulers on account of the most trivial irritations. The case against all the prolusions of ostensible Democracy is indeed so strong that it is impossible to consider the present wide establishment of Democratic institutions as being the outcome of any process of intellectual conviction; it arouses suspicion even whether ostensible Democracy may not be a mere rhetorical garment for essentially different facts, and upon that suspicion we will now inquire.

Democracy of the modern type, manhood suffrage and so forth, became a conspicuous phenomenon in the world only in the closing decades of the eighteenth century. Its genesis is so intimately connected with the first expansion of the productive element in the State, through mechanism and a co-operative organization, as to point at once to a causative connection. The more closely one looks into the social and political life of the eighteenth century the more plausible becomes this view. New and potentially influential social factors had begun to appear—the organizing manufacturer, the intelligent worker, the skilled tenant, and the urban abyss, and the traditions of the old land-owning non-progressive aristocratic monarchy that prevailed in Christendom, rendered it incapable—without some destructive shock or convulsion—of any re-organization to incorporate or control these new factors. In the case of the British Empire an additional stress was created by the incapacity of the formal government to assimilate the developing civilization of the American colonies. Everywhere there were new elements, not as yet clearly analyzed or defined, arising as mechanism arose; everywhere the old traditional government and social system, defined and analyzed all too well, appeared increasingly obstructive, irrational, and feeble in its attempts to include and direct these new powers. But now comes a point to which I am inclined to attach very great importance. The new powers were as yet shapeless. It was not the conflict of a new organization with the old. It was the preliminary dwarfing and deliquescence of the mature old beside the embryonic mass of the new. It was impossible then—it is, I believe, only beginning to be possible now—to estimate the proportions, possibilities, and inter-relations of the new social orders out of which a social organization has still to be built in the coming years. No formula of definite re-construction had been evolved, or has even been evolved yet, after a hundred years. And these swelling inchoate new powers, whose very birth condition was the crippling, modification, or destruction of the old order, were almost forced to formulate their proceedings for a time, therefore, in general affirmative propositions that were really in effect not affirmative propositions at all, but propositions of repudiation and denial. "These kings and nobles and people privileged in relation to obsolescent functions cannot manage our affairs"—that was evident enough, that was the really essential question at that time, and since no other effectual substitute appeared ready made, the working doctrine of the infallible judgment of humanity in the gross, as distinguished from the quite indisputable incapacity of sample individuals, became, in spite of its inherent absurdity, a convenient and acceptable working hypothesis.

Modern Democracy thus came into being, not, as eloquent persons have pretended, by the sovereign people consciously and definitely assuming power—I imagine the sovereign people in France during the first Revolution, for example, quite amazed and muddle-headed with it all—but by the decline of old ruling classes in the face of the quasi-natural growth of mechanism and industrialism, and by the unpreparedness and want of organization in the new intelligent elements in the State. I have compared the human beings in society to a great and increasing variety of colours tumultuously smashed up together, and giving at present a general and quite illusory effect of grey, and I have attempted to show that there is a process in progress that will amount at last to the segregation of these mingled tints into recognizable distinct masses again. It is not a monotony, but an utterly disorderly and confusing variety that makes this grey, but Democracy, for practical purposes, does really assume such a monotony. Like [**Symbol: infinity], the Democratic formula is a concrete-looking and negotiable symbol for a negation. It is the aspect in political disputes and contrivances of that social and moral deliquescence the nature and possibilities of which have been discussed in the preceding chapters of this volume.

Modern Democracy first asserted itself in the ancient kingdoms of France and Great Britain (counting the former British colonies in America as a part of the latter), and it is in the French and English-speaking communities that Democracy has developed itself most completely. Upon the supposition we have made, Democracy broke out first in these States because they were leading the way in material progress, because they were the first States to develop industrialism, wholesale mechanisms, and great masses of insubordinate activity outside the recognized political scheme, and the nature and time and violence of the outbreak was determined by the nature of the superseded government, and the amount of stress between it and the new elements. But the detachment of a great section of the new middle-class from the aristocratic order of England to form the United States of America, and the sudden rejuvenescence of France by the swift and thorough sloughing of its outworn aristocratic monarchy, the consequent wars and the Napoleonic adventure, checked and modified the parallel development that might otherwise have happened in country after country over all Europe west of the Carpathians. The monarchies that would probably have collapsed through internal forces and given place to modern democratic states were smashed from the outside, and a process of political re-construction, that has probably missed out the complete formal Democratic phase altogether—and which has been enormously complicated through religious, national, and dynastic traditions—set in. Throughout America, in England, and, after extraordinary experiments, in France, political democracy has in effect legally established itself—most completely in the United States—and the reflection and influence of its methods upon the methods of all the other countries in intellectual contact with it, have been so considerable as practically to make their monarchies as new in their kind, almost, as democratic republics. In Germany, Austria, and Italy, for example, there is a press nearly as audible as in the more frankly democratic countries, and measurably akin in influence; there are constitutionally established legislative assemblies, and there is the same unofficial development of powerful financial and industrial powers with which the ostensible Government must make terms. In a vast amount of the public discussion of these States, the postulates of Democracy are clearly implicit. Quite as much in reality as the democratic republics of America, are they based not on classes but upon a confusion; they are, in their various degrees and with their various individual differences, just as truly governments of the grey.

It has been argued that the grey is illusory and must sooner or later pass, and that the colour that will emerge to predominance will take its shape as a scientifically trained middle-class of an unprecedented sort, not arising out of the older middle-classes, but replacing them. This class will become, I believe, at last consciously the State, controlling and restricting very greatly the three non-functional masses with which it is as yet almost indistinguishably mingled. The general nature of its formation within the existing confusion and its emergence may, I think, with a certain degree of confidence, be already forecast, albeit at present its beginnings are singularly unpromising and faint. At present the class of specially trained and capable people—doctors, engineers, scientific men of all sorts—is quite disproportionally absent from political life, it does not exist as a factor in that life, it is growing up outside that life, and has still to develop, much more to display, a collective intention to come specifically in. But the forces are in active operation to drag it into the centre of the stage for all that.

The modern democracy or democratic quasi-monarchy conducts its affairs as though there was no such thing as special knowledge or practical education. The utmost recognition it affords to the man who has taken the pains to know, and specifically to do, is occasionally to consult him upon specific points and override his counsels in its ampler wisdom, or to entrust to him some otherwise impossible duty under circumstances of extreme limitation. The man of special equipment is treated always as if he were some sort of curious performing animal. The gunnery specialist, for example, may move and let off guns, but he may not say where they are to be let off—some one a little ignorant of range and trajectory does that; the engineer may move the ship and fire the battery, but only with some man, who does not perfectly understand, shouting instructions down a tube at him. If the cycle is to be adapted to military requirements, the thing is entrusted to Lieutenant-Colonel Balfour. If horses are to be bought for the British Army in India, no specialist goes, but Lord Edward Cecil. These people of the governing class do not understand there is such a thing as special knowledge or an inexorable fact in the world; they have been educated at schools conducted by amateur schoolmasters, whose real aim in life—if such people can be described as having a real aim in life—is the episcopal bench, and they have learnt little or nothing but the extraordinary power of appearances in these democratic times. To look right and to be of good report is to succeed. What else is there? The primarily functional men are ignored in the ostensible political scheme, it operates as though they did not exist, as though nothing, in fact, existed but the irresponsible wealthy, and the manipulators of irresponsible wealth, on the one hand, and a great, grey, politically indifferent community on the other. Having regard only to the present condition of political life, it would seem as though this state of affairs must continue indefinitely, and develop only in accordance with the laws of inter-action between our charlatan governing class on the one hand, and the grey mass of governed on the other. There is no way apparent in the existing political and social order, whereby the class of really educated persons that the continually more complicated mechanical fabric of social life is developing may be expected to come in. And in a very great amount of current political speculation, the development and final emergence of this class is ignored, and attention is concentrated entirely upon the inherent process of development of the political machine. And even in that it is very easy to exaggerate the preponderance of one or other of what are really very evenly balanced forces in the machine of democratic government.

There are two chief sets of parts in the machine that have a certain antagonistic relation, that play against each other, and one's conception of coming developments is necessarily determined by the relative value one gives to these opposing elements. One may compare these two groups to the Power and the Work, respectively, at the two ends of a lever.[33] On the one hand there is that which pays for the machine, which distributes salaries and rewards, subsidizes newspapers and so forth—the central influence.[34] On the other hand, there is the collectively grey voting mass, with certain prejudices and traditions, and certain laws and limitations of thought upon which the newspapers work, and which, within the confines of its inherent laws, they direct. If one dwell chiefly on the possibilities of the former element, one may conjure up a practical end to democracy in the vision of a State "run" entirely by a group of highly forcible and intellectual persons—usually the dream takes the shape of financiers and their associates, their perfected mechanism of party control working the elections boldly and capably, and their public policy being directed towards financial ends. One of the common prophecies of the future of the United States is such a domination by a group of trust organizers and political bosses. But a man, or a group of men, so strong and intelligent as would be needed to hold an entire party machine within the confines of his—or their collective—mind and will, could, at the most, be but a very transitory and incidental phenomenon in the history of the world. Either such an exploitation of the central control will have to be covert and subtle beyond any precedent in human disingenuousness, or else its domination will have to be very amply modified indeed, by the requirements of the second factor, and its proceedings made very largely the resultant of that second factor's forces. Moreover, very subtle men do not aim at things of this sort, or aiming, fail, because subtlety of intelligence involves subtlety of character, a certain fastidiousness and a certain weakness. Now that the garrulous period, when a flow of language and a certain effectiveness of manner was a necessary condition to political pre-eminence, is passing away, political control falls more and more entirely into the hands of a barristerish intriguing sort of person with a tough-wearing, leathery, practical mind. The sort of people who will work the machine are people with "faith," as the popular preachers say, meaning, in fact, people who do not analyze, people who will take the machine as it is, unquestioningly, shape their ambitions to it, and—saving their vanity—work it as it wants to go. The man who will be boss will be the man who wants to be boss, who finds, in being boss, a complete and final satisfaction, and not the man who complicates things by wanting to be boss in order to be, or do, something else. The machines are governed to-day, and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to be governed, by masterful-looking resultants, masters of nothing but compromise, and that little fancy of an inner conspiracy of control within the machine and behind ostensible politics is really on all fours with the wonderful Rodin (of the Juif Errant) and as probable as anything else in the romances of Eugene Sue.

If, on the other hand, we direct attention to the antagonistic element in the machine, to Public Opinion, to the alleged collective mind of the grey mass, and consider how it is brought to believe in itself and its possession of certain opinions by the concrete evidence of daily newspapers and eloquent persons saying as much, we may also very readily conjure up a contrasted vision of extraordinary demagogues or newspaper syndicates working the political machine from that direction. So far as the demagogue goes, the increase of population, the multiplication of amusements and interests, the differentiation of social habits, the diffusion of great towns, all militate against that sufficient gathering of masses of voters in meeting-houses which gave him his power in the recent past. It is improbable that ever again will any flushed undignified man with a vast voice, a muscular face in incessant operation, collar crumpled, hair disordered, and arms in wild activity, talking, talking, talking, talking copiously out of the windows of railway carriages, talking on railway platforms, talking from hotel balconies, talking on tubs, barrels, scaffoldings, pulpits—tireless and undammable—rise to be the most powerful thing in any democratic state in the world. Continually the individual vocal demagogue dwindles, and the element of bands and buttons, the organization of the press and procession, the share of the machine, grows.

Mr. Harmsworth, of the London Daily Mail, in a very interesting article has glanced at certain possibilities of power that may vest in the owners of a great system of world-wide "simultaneous" newspapers, but he does not analyze the nature of the influence exercised by newspapers during the successive phases of the nineteenth century, nor the probable modifications of that influence in the years to come, and I think, on the whole, he inclines very naturally to over estimate the amount of intentional direction that may be given by the owner of a paper to the minds and acts of his readers, and to exceed the very definite limits within which that influence is confined. In the earlier Victorian period, the more limited, partly educated, and still very homogeneous enfranchised class, had a certain habit of thinking; its tranquil assurance upon most theological and all moral and æsthetic points left political questions as the chief field of exercise for such thinking as it did, and, as a consequence, the dignified newspapers of that time were able to discuss, and indeed were required to discuss not only specific situations but general principles. That indeed was their principal function, and it fell rather to the eloquent men to misapply these principles according to the necessity of the occasion. The papers did then very much more than they do now to mould opinion, though they did not direct affairs to anything like the extent of their modern successors. They made roads upon which events presently travelled in unexpected fashions. But the often cheaper and always more vivid newspapers that have come with the New Democracy do nothing to mould opinion. Indeed, there is no longer upon most public questions—and as I have tried to make clear in my previous paper, there is not likely to be any longer—a collective opinion to be moulded. Protectionists, for example, are a mere band, Free Traders are a mere band; on all these details we are in chaos. And these modern newspapers simply endeavour to sustain a large circulation and so merit advertisements by being as miscellaneously and vividly interesting as possible, by firing where the crowd seems thickest, by seeking perpetually and without any attempt at consistency, the greatest excitement of the greatest number. It is upon the cultivation and rapid succession of inflammatory topics that the modern newspaper expends its capital and trusts to recover its reward. Its general news sinks steadily to a subordinate position; criticism, discussion, and high responsibility pass out of journalism, and the power of the press comes more and more to be a dramatic and emotional power, the power to cry "Fire!" in the theatre, the power to give enormous value for a limited time to some personality, some event, some aspect, true or false, without any power of giving a specific direction to the forces this distortion may set going. Directly the press of to-day passes from that sort of thing to some specific proposal, some implication of principles and beliefs, directly it chooses and selects, then it passes from the miscellaneous to the sectarian, and out of touch with the grey indefiniteness of the general mind. It gives offence here, it perplexes and bores there; no more than the boss politician can the paper of great circulation afford to work consistently for any ulterior aim.

This is the limit of the power of the modern newspaper of large circulation, the newspaper that appeals to the grey element, to the average democratic man, the newspaper of the deliquescence, and if our previous conclusion that human society has ceased to be homogeneous and will presently display new masses segregating from a great confusion, holds good, that will be the limit of its power in the future. It may undergo many remarkable developments and modifications,[35] but none of these tend to give it any greater political importance than it has now. And so, after all, our considerations of the probable developments of the party machine give us only negative results, so long as the grey social confusion continues. Subject to that continuance the party machine will probably continue as it is at present, and Democratic States and governments follow the lines upon which they run at the present time.

Now, how will the emergent class of capable men presently begin to modify the existing form of government in the ostensibly democratic countries and democratic monarchies? There will be very many variations and modifications of the methods of this arrival, an infinite complication of detailed incidents, but a general proposition will be found to hold good. The suppression of the party machine in the purely democratic countries and of the official choice of the rich and privileged rulers in the more monarchical ones, by capable operative and administrative men inspired by the belief in a common theory of social order, will come about—peacefully and gradually as a process of change, or violently as a revolution—but inevitably as the outcome either of the imminence or else of the disasters of war.

That all these governments of confusion will drift towards war, with a spacious impulse and a final vehemence quite out of comparison greater than the warlike impulses of former times, is a remarkable but by no means inexplicable thing. A tone of public expression, jealous and patriotic to the danger-point, is an unavoidable condition under which democratic governments exist. To be patriotically quarrelsome is imperative upon the party machines that will come to dominate the democratic countries. They will not possess detailed and definite policies and creeds because there are no longer any detailed and definite public opinions, but they will for all that require some ostensible purpose to explain their cohesion, some hold upon the common man that will ensure his appearance in numbers at the polling place sufficient to save the government from the raids of small but determined sects. That hold can be only of one sort. Without moral or religious uniformity, with material interests as involved and confused as a heap of spelicans, there remains only one generality for the politician's purpose, the ampler aspect of a man's egotism, his pride in what he imagines to be his particular kind—his patriotism. In every country amenable to democratic influences there emerges, or will emerge, a party machine, vividly and simply patriotic—and indefinite upon the score of any other possible consideration between man and man. This will hold true, not only of the ostensibly democratic states, but also of such reconstituted modern monarchies as Italy and Germany, for they, too, for all their legal difference, rest also on the grey. The party conflicts of the future will turn very largely on the discovery of the true patriot, on the suspicion that the crown or the machine in possession is in some more or less occult way traitorous, and almost all other matters of contention will be shelved and allowed to stagnate, for fear of breaking the unity of the national mechanism.

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