Fear and Talk Makes Companions of Us All, Research Time, 09/09/2013

Another aspect of Sartre’s thinking on group action in that section where I found the meditation on political violence I discussed Friday is actually a brief critique of electoral democracy. The basic idea is that there’s a state where a population can genuinely move as one, but that it’s very difficult to maintain. Like I described Friday, this is a realization, occurring pretty much simultaneously in huge numbers of individuals in a society, that there is a common imminent threat to their well-being.

In the example Sartre discussed, the storming of the Bastille, he found his prime case. It was a population driven to such an intensity of fear by a sudden surge of state police suspecting everyone of conspiring against the government, that everyone started conspiring against the government to defend themselves. Compared to modern security state action, it was a rank amateur move, but it was the early days of the modern state. They hadn’t figured out all the possible tricks yet to maintain a stable system.

I find images of Machiavelli that make him look
like a supervillain are my favourites, because I
know that he's actually quite liberal, just realistic.
I’m planning a Machiavelli course for an application I’m preparing, and the brutal realism of his perspective is a refresher that I think every political philosopher should take in once in a while. I think arguments in political and moral philosophy tend sometimes to an abstraction that takes their argument a little too distant from the concerns of ordinary people, or the messiness of daily political life. The Prince and the Discourses on Livy can be a wonderful antidote.

Returning to electoral democracy, Sartre makes a comment that’s almost casually tossed off. Yet I find that the throwaway comments of a great writer can contain accidental wisdom. Most of the time. Sometimes, it’s just a joke that doesn’t quite land as planned. But this is an actual random pearl of wisdom. 

The idea goes something like this. Electors go to the polls for an election or a referendum, and all these individual people make their decisions based on their own thoughts and reflections. Then all these individual decisions are added together into an average result, and whoever comes out on top in your vote allocation system wins . . . something. But the representative parliament doesn’t represent the will of the populace at all; it represents an aggregation of individual opinions. Because the electors never really communicated much with each other, no attempt at a coherent common movement could have been made. It didn’t have to be consensus. There just had to be communication. This is Sartre’s idea.

And I find it very interesting, because it takes a key point that had gone unquestioned in Hegelian-inspired political philosophy (dialectical political thinking, and anything influenced by theoretical Marxism) and quietly blows it away. Precisely my biggest bugbear about Hegel’s influence, when I was writing about the Philosophy of History this July, was that the people are only free through subsuming their wills in the state. The actions of the state overwrite individual wills, providing all the institutional machinery is running smoothly.

Sartre says the only institutional machinery you need are channels so as many people as possible can have some kind of public conversation where they can at least understand where everyone else is coming from. Any institution that would socially isolate people from those who live or think differently from them would be anti-democratic. The only real common action you can take is the action of communicating, and whatever arises from that conversation. Any other public institutions that don’t encourage that kind of contact get in the way of democracy.

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