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Jan-Werner Müller, Democracy Rules

London: Allen Lane; New York, Farrar Straus, 256 pp., ISBN: 978-0241382936

Democracy Rules is a weak book by a clever person about a topic of overwhelming importance. Little novel there. More disconcertingly, however, it is also a weak book by a well-informed scholar, teaching at a major American university, who has written extensively about many of the issues discussed and enjoys excellent access to leading Anglophone newspapers and periodicals. It is published by great publishers on either side of the Atlantic and is no doubt destined to be widely translated into other languages. Its weaknesses are systemic rather than personal. The question it tries to answer is one of political judgment. Should we, on recent evidence (where recent might mean anything between the morning’s newspapers and the history of the world over at least the last three decades) despair of democracy as a form of government? This is not a well-posed question, but it is certainly one which many are now asking. So the book has a potential audience of some amplitude.

Why are so many now asking it? Principally because the governments of a large majority of the wealthiest countries in the world have been failing ever more conspicuously for quite a long time, and the governments of poorer countries, unsurprisingly, for the most part failing even worse. A débâcle so drastic, so protracted, and so widely distributed is unlikely to be well explained by parsing a political category, but Müller starts promisingly by acknowledging that his question cannot be answered “without a proper understanding of democracy to begin with”. It is at this point that his book fails and fails decisively. He treats democracy as though it is a single idea, susceptible of decisive clarification. Note the term ‘proper’. But democracy is not a single idea, but three quite distinct things. In the first place it is simply a word, but it is also an indeterminate range of vague and potentially incompatible ideas and a miscellany of governmental institutions strung out across space and time which claim for one reason or another to instantiate their own favoured selection from these ideas. The word itself is uncontrollably promiscuous. It cannot be given a canonical interpretation or an authoritative definition by anything but fiat.

Müller’s own interpretation is conventional enough for a university teacher who teaches in North America: a political community ruled largely by law and drawing its authority to govern on a fair basis from the free choices of its equal and suitably informed citizens. This, as he painstakingly indicates, is some distance from how the USA now finds itself and none too close to anywhere there has ever been. His book is devoted to exploring how far (and how) it is reasonable to hope to narrow this gap. His jaunty, if somewhat muffled, answer is quite a lot, but not very confidently. Unfortunately, he gives far weightier reasons for the lack of confidence than for the scope for realising the hope in practice.

At a much earlier point, Müller himself registers one reason why that hope must be so precarious: a regime which needs both equality and freedom for all its citizens “makes equal influence on matters of state, or even equal chance of influence, unlikely (though not conceptually impossible)”. It is just as well for one’s ideas not to be incoherent in the first place, but no idea is likely to be much help in politics unless it applies to the world. Political equality must either mean a set of formal rights to which every citizen is entitled and which are reliably observed in practice (a real political grace, but imperfectly realised anywhere ever) or it must mean at least the chance for whoever chooses to take it of equal influence on many matters of state. No modern state has ever offered that in practice. Except whimsically and sporadically, it is quite unclear that any state could and there is no reason whatever to suppose that any which did decide to try at all persistently to do so would be doing its citizens a favour.

This is a completely unreal way of thinking about politics and its impact on human lives, blithely oblivious to what has created the states which Europeans and Americans now think of as democracies. Those states have one great strength in comparison with their counterparts elsewhere in the world which interpret democracy quite differently or openly spurn it. The governments of the first have all been authorized at some point in the past by the presumptively free choices of very large numbers of their own citizens and, for as long as they retain the institutions which gave them their authority in working order, can all be deauthorized in due course in just the same way and replaced by rivals who are seen as less offensive at the time. This does not guarantee anything else of value and unfortunately it in no way ensures that they will govern better in practice than counterparts elsewhere who firmly prefer to authorize themselves. In itself, this is a massive and hard-won political achievement which would be worse than reckless to squander voluntarily.

What makes the idea of literal political equality absurd in the world in which we live? The answer, of course, is almost everything about it which is attributable to the impact of human beings. You could divide that up in innumerable ways of which two salient ones will do for a start: in the first place, their cumulative effects as a species on the non-human settings in which they live, in the second, their ever-shifting relations with one another. The widespread current interest in Müller’s question arises predominantly from the second, and especially from the vertiginous chasm between very small numbers of the preposterously rich and immense numbers of the still ignominiously and terrifyingly poor and the strains that chasm has naturally imposed on the political frameworks which sustain whatever degree of stability those relations have previously attained. The former are now fraught enough to perturb the rulers of almost anywhere in the world. They do so as much in Abu Dhabi or Saudi Arabia as in Iran, in China or South Korea as in the USA, in Tunisia and Brazil as in Peru, Chile, or Cuba. They are disquieting enough to have caught the attention of huge Swiss banks, long inured to ignoring the constraints of law, and, despite the awesome scale of expenditure required to sustain their own lifestyles, even of the commanding heights of the world’s oldest political party, Britain’s Tory Party. A dispersion on this scale cannot reasonably be attributed to a form of government and could scarcely be reversed even by the miraculous and simultaneous installation of the very best form of government there could possibly be across the entire humanly inhabited globe.

This is where we have been going in our interactions with one another for a very long time—combined and uneven development, if you will—in which the development has always been bought at the price of the unevenness and, quite often, of very much blood. For all its often hideous deformities, the development itself of course has not been illusory. Immense numbers of human beings until quite recently—in many settings up to the coming of the pandemic —had come to live much longer and far less miserably than ever before. The development itself will scarcely yet simply stop. It is being shown even now in the astonishing speed and scale of the vaccinations in many of the richer countries. If we are lucky, those vaccines or their successors will in the end tame the virus this time. But it is the development which has carried the virus everywhere where human beings live and it can no longer hope to domesticate the virus before many hundreds of millions more lives have been ruined irretrievably. Snakes and Ladders, and very prominent contingencies in where any of us find ourselves on the board.

And all this whilst, underneath and above and around it, something else has been going on. At a still drastically accelerating pace, we have been ruining the terrain on which we live and purging it of unimaginable numbers of other forms of life. This too has come and come unrelentingly from the development and it remains for the present a wholly open question how far that development can rescue human lives from now on. Such rescue as there could still be will remain devastatingly unequal and come far too late for vast numbers of us, as it already has for so many other forms of life. No development without unevenness, and no unevenness without its hecatombs of victims: “Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.”, observed Robert Frost some time ago. Sooner or later that must always have been true, but from a human point of view at present it would be premature to exclude its ending in both (in a combined and uneven way).

If no system of government could still rescue us as a species from the chaos we have made, we should certainly despair of democracy, along with everything else that holds value only because some humans value it. Any of us is fully entitled to imagine the rules of democracy for ourself and some may even be able to imagine an array of circumstances in which every citizen of somewhere really did have an equal chance of influencing matters of state in a state of their very own. But however imaginative they managed to be they could scarcely also imagine processes through which those rules could come about through, or insert themselves into, the overwhelming juggernaut of inequality which has carried us to where we are. Still less, how they could even begin to impose themselves on that juggernaut’s future momentum or direction. It does not follow from the fact that humans have so formidably remade the world they now live in that they can somehow remake it to either their present taste or their future convenience.

This is to apply a stern standard to Müller’s book, which provides a lot of information about the pathologies of contemporary government and political relations in America and elsewhere, some of it presented quite helpfully. It is, nevertheless, surely the right standard to apply, since the topic which prompts it truly is eschatological, and so little of the information it presents even tries to address what makes it so.

The key misapprehension underlying the book is its presupposition that democracy could and should be the proper name for a simply good form of government. This is not fundamentally an error in the application of words. It is a mistake about the nature of government. No government can in principle be simply good. Government is a system of coordination in pacifying a population and a territory. It relies for its efficacy on the capacity to persuade the population to live together peacefully and to coerce those it fails to persuade as and when it judges this necessary. There is no way of making that judgment failsafe, just as there is no way of ensuring that the coercion required to enforce it will be confined to (or even aimed principally at) recalcitrance to the best judgment there could possibly be. No one has ever offered good reasons why any possible institutionalization of democracy would ensure that the judgment itself proves deft, or even that it does not prove catastrophic. The legitimacy of governments is always frail and imperfect and their consequences often woeful. You could write the rules of democracy any way you felt like but there can be no safety in being mesmerized by a word.

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Correspondence to John Dunn.

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Dunn, J. Jan-Werner Müller, Democracy Rules . Soc 58, 444–446 (2021).

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