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Democracy: why does it fail, how can it succeed?

Paul Tyson | mέta Advisory Board

Telos is the ancient Greek word for ‘end’, or ‘perfection’, or ‘purpose’. Hence, teleology is the philosophical discipline which seeks to understand the proper purpose of things. The basic idea animating teleology in Classical Greek philosophy is that every type of living being has a distinctive essential nature. When this nature is fulfilled, the genuine flourishing of that being naturally occurs.

But nature itself, though self-balancing over the long run, is complex. Hence, there are all sorts of ways in which any given being – such as a person within a political community – can be unbalanced in his or her own natural tendencies. The unbalanced person may, for example, lack self-control. Such a person will act impulsively according to their immediate feelings, fears, and desires, without the proper governance of their instincts by well-trained habits, moral insight, and long-range reasoning. Such a person fails to fulfil their genuinely human nature and will be alienated from their own essential humanity. Such a person will be in conflict with the community to whom they belong. Any community habitually characterized by tendencies that are un-natural will be in dissonance with itself and other communities, will be at odds with the divine order of the cosmos, and will be unsustainably parasitic on the human and natural ecosystems on which the life of that community depend.

Being disordered in one’s natural inclinations is a perennial problem for human individuals and communities. For this reason, children have to be formed to have virtuous characters so that they can grow up to be in wise and rational control of their desires and fears. One only becomes fully human – that is, realizes one’s true human nature – by rational self-mastery and moral discipline. And yet, Aristotle maintains, things naturally tend towards flourishing.

To Aristotle there is a necessary relationship between what is natural and what is good. Equally, there is a necessary relationship between what is unnatural and what is bad. Aristotelian teleology, then, reads moral goodness off from natural flourishing. Here, when any person is being genuinely natural, they are also being morally good, and their life exemplifies the excellence (virtue) of genuine human flourishing.

Aristotle was one of the foundering minds of political science in the Western intellectual tradition. After carefully describing many different political constitutions in the ancient world, Aristotle sought to understand the different ways in which all political structures are trying to achieve human flourishing. Aristotle clearly understood that power in any civic context is both necessary and dangerous, so a civic community that is genuinely oriented to the highest and common good is a project that can never be once and for all time realized. No constitutional structure in itself ‘achieves’ political success, but the community that appreciates the benefits of genuine power, and guards against the ‘un-natural’ pitfalls of power, and that aims at true goodness for all, will be able to continuously renew itself. But whilst flourishing is what we all naturally aspire to, the ‘un-natural’ tendency for moral laziness to settle in on any comfortable citizenry, and the harvesting of popular approval by the politically ambitious for their own advantage, must be constantly guarded against by any political form of life.

Aristotle thought that the distinctive essence of human nature is that we are speech using beings. We are uniquely “political animals” who can only genuinely flourish when we use rational and moral persuasion to pursue human happiness together. So orienting our common lives together, via public speech, to pursue the Highest Good – or, to use Cicero’s Latin phrase, the Summum Bonum – is a civic community that is aiming at that goal (telos) of a humanly flourishing polity.

Aristotle was very interested in what imbalances were likely to be endemic to different political structures, and he developed the idea of the political revolution to point this out. He thought that tyranny was always produced by some terrible civic crisis that concentrated power in just one person, but that power cannot actually be maintained only by one, so tyranny evolves naturally into oligarchy. Oligarchy is also unstable, as once power has been divulged downward, more people want a share of it; thus oligarchy evolves naturally into democracy. Democracy is also inherently unstable because crowd manipulating popularists easily exploit this form of power for their own interests, at the cost of the genuine flourishing of the polity. So democracy evolves naturally into anarchy, which produces the collapse of civic order, and calls forth a powerful tyrant to impose order. And so the political cycle (revolution) continues and never finally settles on any one form of government.

Whatever one may think of Aristotle’s political science, teleology remains indispensable if one wishes to know if any public institution or civic ideal is succeeding or failing. When it comes to our distinctive type of politics – that is, Western, modern, secular, liberal, and democratic politics – one has to have some idea of what makes for a polity that promotes human flourishing before one can tell if our democracy is succeeding or failing.

However, teleology has been in serious trouble as a feature of Western political philosophy since the revolt against Aristotle that started with the rise of the modern era. This produces a difficult problem for us if we are trying to work out if democracy is succeeding or failing, and what makes it succeed, and what makes it fail.

If we have no clear idea of what morally characterizes human flourishing in a political context, and no clear vision of the highest good to which we are continuously politically aspiring, then we have no clear means of judging whether our democracy is succeeding or failing. We may well be able to sense a turn of the political wheel creeping up on us, and we may not like the post-truth turn towards popularist demagogues on the one hand, and ever more centralized and civically unaccountable state and corporate power on the other hand, but we cannot say what is unnatural and immoral about this situation if we only have a procedural understanding of what democracy is. If we do not have any genuinely teleological understanding of how democracy should promote human flourishing, then the movement of real power away from the demos is simply an observable fact which we may not like, rather than something that is inherently unnatural and at odds with human flourishing.

In the Australian context, Stan Grant and Malcolm Turnbull both have much to say on ‘the falling of the dusk’, and the pressing need to ‘defend democracy’, where both sense real peril to our democratic form of political life. Yet, both thinkers are remarkably philosophically thin when it comes to why liberal democracy defines a genuinely flourishing political form of life. They tell me that they don’t like the erosion of democracy, but they do not tell me what is inherently bad about the emerging post-political dynamics of power in a techno-feudal, algorithmically manipulated, and increasingly conflict prone and populist age. What if the majority of Australians really don’t care about the erosion of democratic politics?

I think a strong argument can be made that throwing Aristotelian teleology out is intimately linked with the pending failure of our democracies. Let me put this argument to you now.

Francis Bacon was famously uninterested in metaphysics. To him, practical power is what really matters, and such power can only be had by what we now call scientific knowledge. Here, the experimental and mathematical knowledge of how Nature works enables us to have power over her, gives us freedom from her destructive vicissitudes, and promotes human utility. Indeed, to Bacon, science is a theological and eschatological enterprise. God has given us dominion over the earth, and science is the way we will recover this lost dominion after the fall. Further, as the prophet Daniel foretold, knowledge will greatly increase in the last days, so the advance of science will hurry along the end of the age of toil and struggle, and lead us into a great and shining future. The deeply modern belief in the obvious link between advances in science and utopian progress is the secularization of Bacon’s eschatology.

Notably, university learning was intimately linked with Aristotle and the Church in early modernity, and traditional teleological categories were also integral with how university educated professionals understood law and politics. But the pragmatic advancement of science gradually got rid of teleology and was inclined to ignore or entirely re-draw medieval theological thought, to suit more post-Aristotelian tastes. Notably, Pierre Gassendi’s successful revival of ancient atomism facilitated the recovery of Empiricist, Epicurean and Democritan approaches to natural knowledge, which simply dropped the idea that purpose was a real feature of nature. This needs to be unpacked a little.

To Aristotle, everything has four causes: material, efficient, formal and final. We still understand material and efficient causes in nature (which is what modern physics studies) but formal causation concerns the intellective essence (the ‘form’) of any given being, and final causation concerns the natural ‘end’ or purpose to which that being tends. Put simply, modern science does not think essential natures and intrinsic purposes are features of natural reality. We now typically think that whatever is natural simply is – it has no moral or essential meaning – because natural reality is made up of atoms, in motion, in space, only. Observable, manipulable and material Nature does not have any value or purpose. Value and purpose have thus migrated out of Nature and into Culture.

Value and purpose are now humanly concocted meanings that we create and project onto nature, rather than value and meaning being anything you can discover from observing nature. Hence, teleology as an observation-based science giving us fact-grounded moral and purposive truths, has been abandoned in the age of modern science. Nature is here eviscerated of any real intrinsic qualities and essential purposes.

In the modern era Nature starts to become a merely factual domain of materially manipulable things that have no intrinsic moral or purposive meanings, and Culture starts to become a purely poetic construction of humanly dreamed up meanings and values.

I say “starts to become” because Western moral values and civic purposes do not cease to be profoundly defined by overtly Christian theological and Aristotelian philosophical categories until as recently as the 1970s. All the way through early modernity Aristotelian categories of Natural Law (where what is natural is what is good) and Christian categories of high meaning, continued to deeply shape Western forms of law and governance. There is a notable switch in the late 19th century where – according to the historian of modern science and religion, Peter Harrison – a “remarkable reversal” happens such that instead of Christian theology holding final authority as qualitative and essential public truth, an explicitly secularized science comes to replace transcendent religious truth with quantified and pragmatic truth. But this reversal takes about 100 years to work its way from elite progressive and secularizing intellectual circles into the common life of the West.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s is the most overt face of a broad rejection of Christian and Natural Law categories of what is good and respectable in the public domain. Popular youth culture now embraces a genuinely modern ‘naturalism’ where Nature herself has nothing to say about what is right or wrong, or what promotes flourishing or harm (though Nature does tell us what is pleasurable, and pleasure becomes the only natural good). At this point radical avant-garde progressives break out of an elite intellectual sub-culture and the long march away from Western Christendom turns a decisive cultural corner. Here Nature tells us no moral right or wrong, and Culture simply makes up whatever values and meanings that suit.

Yet, the post-war boom era of hedonic consumer capitalism centres value and meaning not in Culture as such, but in liberal individualism. Here purposes and moral meanings are entirely located in the private domain of personal choice. At this point, traditional Natural Law categories of what is intrinsically and naturally good, and traditional Christian categories of what the divinely ordained cosmic order looks like, are dropped.

So now we cannot say what the common good telos of liberal democracy is, other than it gives individuals whatever they want (if they can afford it), it allows them to believe whatever they like about religion and morality, and it gives individuals whatever legally legitimate personal construction of purpose and meaning that they wish to choose. This is an entirely different context to the birth of modern democracy in the English-speaking world, which is tied to the traditions of the English parliament, to the experiment of the United States, to the mid 19th century wave of European constitutional democracies, and – last of all – to the birth of the Australian nation and its distinctive political system in 1901.

English language modern democratic government is birthed in a Christian and Natural Law culture. Here, the moral purpose of the polity itself was both revealed partially by Nature, but also defined by transcendent theological truths. Values and purposes were here ‘bigger’ than individual freedom, and gave a positive moral and cosmic meaning to genuine human freedom. But this sort of democracy requires Natural Law categories of moral truth that are incumbent upon all citizens whatever their private moral and religious convictions may be, and a public respect for the transcendent theological categories of high meaning defining justice (in distinction from mere power) and authority (in distinction from mere legal and procedural correctness). Such an outlook grounds the public institutions of law and government in something morally higher than the ‘black box’ proceduralism of a simply legally correct parliamentary and electoral process.

We have now secularized political power well beyond the formal separation of church and state, such that all theological categories are now largely excluded from the public domain. We have now privatized all moral and purpose categories and made the public domain rigorously procedural and amorally pragmatic (i.e., the ‘good’ is defined largely in terms of wealth, safety, and national pride – none of which are inherently moral categories at all). Thus we have removed the high meanings, moral commitments, and common purposes that were assumed in the birth of our democracies. But can our democracies as they were originally envisioned survive in a public culture that is now so comparatively morally and theologically impoverished?

Plato’s Republic is trying to think what the ideal political community – the city that facilitates true human flourishing – is like. In Book Two, the interlocutors reject a luxury oriented state, calling this – reminiscent of one of Odysseus’ strange adventures – a City of Pigs. Here, via the unbridled indulgence of our animal desires for pleasure and ease, we lose our humanity and become sub-human. In fact, we become pen animals to be harvested by those powerful enchanters who control us through controlling our food troughs. (A well-known truism among those who study information and surveillance technology notes that if an on-line product is free, then the user is the product!)

As both Plato and Aristotle see it, any polity primarily set up for sensual luxury is a fevered city which mis-reads human nature as defined merely by sub-rational animal interests. For humans do not have the same nature as creatures without speech. Speech is unique to the human animal, and makes us uniquely human, for it is by speech that we are more than brutes, we pursue the highest good, and we participate in divine things – justice, beauty, reason, goodness, and so on. But now that the West has effectively flung off the remnants of Christendom and Natural Law, Nature has no moral value and no essential or transcendently anchored purposes, but Culture simply manufactures ‘values’ and ‘purposes’ which each individual can pick and choose as they like. Under such cultural conditions we rather assume that our brute animal nature is our only real nature, and then the City of Pigs is the only sensible and realistic form of political life we can imagine. As Bill Clinton famously discerned, in such a context, politics amounts to nothing more than “the economy” (and we hungry pigs all stupidly agree).

Could it be that democracy in the Western nation-state tradition is no longer defined by the assumed categories of Natural Law and sacred transcendence that were part and parcel of its origins? Could it be that only a City of Pigs makes sense to both the electorate and our pragmatic political class for we no longer have any assumed understanding of what the distinctly human purposes are that a polity must aspire to facilitate? Could it be that in our post-Christian context there is no sacred participation of justice and authority in any higher truths than simply wealth, power, and interest?

It is the 25th of April as I write. I went to the dawn service in ANZAC Square in Brisbane this morning. Noticeably, the plaque on the shrine read “For God, King, and Empire”. I hazard that none of the participants in that service thought the real meaning of the sacrifice of young men at Gallipoli in 1915 was Australia’s loyalty – to the death – to God, King, and Empire. And yet we all stood when the King’s representative (the Governor of Queensland) arrived, and prayers and hymns to the Christian God were indeed integral with that service, and the Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead was unflinchingly proclaimed by the Anglican chaplain of that service (and the English monarch – who is also Australia’s king – is still the Head of the Anglican Church). It seems that the habits, the ceremonies, the public theology, the natural law categories of intrinsic human dignity, and the liturgies of the past still resonates with our very secularized and consumer formed polity, even if the meanings of the past are now both unknown to us, and beyond our coherent articulation.

In the post-Howard era the meaning of the ANZAC legend has been nearly completely re-created in order to give spiritually starved Australians at least some sense of higher meaning, and some sort of nebulously transcendent reason to be prepared to sacrifice the lives of their young sons (and daughters) to the Australian nation. But this new meaning rests on old categories of divinely gifted dignity and essential human nature that, perhaps, our City of Pigs age can never really wipe from our hearts and minds. Perhaps, even, Aristotle and the Bible are right about what it really means to be human?

This morning I got the impression that we really don’t understand our own fore fathers and mothers from the early 20th century. We think we are commemorating those who died in the defense of our nation to keep us free – we have no thoughts about God, King, or Empire now. And of course, being an invading force in Turkey, there is no case to be made that our legendary first ANZACs were defending or even serving Australia. How the categories of meaning, of high purpose, of human flourishing have changed in a little over a century. How the meaning of history has been recast by the present. The context of assumed shared meanings is incredibly important when we try and think about what our polity is for, and about whether our form of political life is serving human flourishing or has been corrupted.

So what makes Australian democracy fail, and what makes it succeed?

The Australian democracy arises out of the English Crown and Parliament tradition. That tradition is embedded in Christian theological and Natural Law understandings of the sacred origins of justice and political authority. Here, the concepts of the essential meaning of human nature and the good polity are defined by: ruling sovereignty as a divinely mediated sacrament; the imago Dei giving equal dignity to all people; the sacred role of speech in deliberative power, and; the collective pursuit of the Summum Bonum as the goal of any good polity.

We have systematically undone our public heritage in Christian theology and Natural Law teleology since the 1970s, so we will not be able to uphold the kind of democracy that our founding fathers envisioned. Their vision for us is failing because we no longer share their basic philosophical, theological, and moral convictions, or their vision of what humanity essentially is. We now rather want politics to promote Australia as a City of Pigs.

English origin democracy is not well suited to the kind of polity we seem to now want. According to Yanis Varoufakis global techno-feudalism is replacing both capitalist economics and nation-state democratic politics, and according to Shoshana Zuboff, individualized deep surveillance marketing is powerfully training us to be happy little pigs with our snouts firmly in the global corporate, informational, entertainment, financial industry, and military-industrial (US aligned) trough. We are not going to need democratic politics with this future already firmly in place. So frankly, I can’t now see what could make Australian democracy – at least in continuity with its pre-1970s origins – succeed. It looks like Aristotle is right again. We are in for a revolution in political life-form, if it has not already happened.

Then again, perhaps the above is too bleak. All we need to do to revive democracy in our English system tradition is to recover a sense of the meaning of human flourishing that is bigger than being fat and happy pigs pursuing our own private interests. The structures of power are still officially accountable to the people. If the people can envision a genuinely moral and genuinely high vision of what it means to be human, and what collective human flourishing actually looks like, then we do not need to give in to the City of Pigs. Why should we go quietly into that political night? How about we intelligently and diligently resist abdicating the responsibilities of the democratic citizenry and stop handing power over to the new alliances forming between information technology, corporate power and the all-knowing nanny state? Why don’t we try that?

Dr Paul Tyson is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Queensland’s  Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities. Tyson is an integral thinker who works across philosophy, theology and sociology. Metaphysics and epistemology, understood not only philosophically and theoretically, but equally theologically and sociologically, are his areas of interest. At present he is a Principal Investigator and the Project Co-coordinator for the “After Science and Religion” project, run through IASH. This project stems from Professor Peter Harrison’s 2015 text, The Territories of Science and Religion, and seeks to re-think what both science and religion could look like as we move forward.