Strong Men, Weak Peoples – the Uncertain Future of Democracy

A critical reviewer would probably have to accompany this essay in the manner of Wikipedia: “additional evidence required”. Nevertheless, I dare to publish it, because I fear that there will never be enough evidence on this topic – but instead lots of different opinions. What I may offer the reader are mere impressions, everyone may supplement them in his own way and with his – hopefully better – knowledge.

It is, however, an indisputable truth that in many parts of the world democracy is under heavy fire. It is so even in countries where it has long been established – as in the US – or where it has only recently been introduced, as in Russia. But even in Europe strong men are waiting for their opportunity or have already seized it. This applies to the Kaczynskis in Poland, to Orban’s seizure of power in Hungary and will probably soon apply for a second time to Matteo Salvini, who is on the verge of ousting the current Conte government.

It seems difficult to resist the rise of strong men,

for some of them can undoubtedly boast a resounding success. The renewal of China under a dictatorial regime that is by no means squeamish in its dealings with its own citizens is, at least in material terms, the story of such a breathtaking achievement. Never before has a state succeeded in pulling so many people in so short a time out of unbearable poverty – even providing many of them with both prosperity and the security to enjoy it. Whatever we in Europe may think about China’s renewal, the rest of the world admires, envies or even fears it. Like perhaps no other man the current head of State, Xi Jinping, embodies the strong man who concentrates all the forces of imposed advancement while at the same time mercilessly suppressing all forces of political resistance – eliminating them physically if necessary. It would be too easy to see in this mere suppression, as the regime actively promotes, encourages even propels all forces of innovation. Only those who insist on political freedom as well, in other words those who claim the right to question the current system or even actively fight it, would do well to leave the country before they are silenced.

We Westerners should not pretend

that we don’t know the Janus-faced regime threatening us with its grimace and at the same time encouraging us with a smile. On the contrary, we know it only too well – although on a deeper level. After all, China is managed in the same way as any modern corporation. As a rule, the latter does not plan and decide its policies democratically, i.e. through votes by the workforce, but decisions are dictated from above by the board of directors. Those who follow its guidelines are encouraged, promoted and often satisfied with exorbitant material rewards; those who strive for “regime change” are fired without hesitation. With few exceptions (on a large scale in Japan and more tentatively in Yugoslavia), companies, these stem cells of capitalism, have never been democratic. They have always been strictly elitist in the sense that they should be governed by the best educated, most capable people. For this reason, the economic model of the capitalist enterprise and the democratic state always found themselves in sharp contrast to each other. The company had to solve a sharply delimited, clearly defined task: It should produce certain material goods at the lowest possible cost in both maximum quantity as well as quality. This is a purely technical problem to be solved by technical competence. The state, however, has always faced a much broader challenge. Not only should it provide its citizens with prosperity and security – this is indeed a largely technical problem – but at the same time and as important, it should also make the citizens feel that they are living in a just, humane society based on solidarity, where all can exercise their abilities and fulfil their expectations. In such a state, the weak too must have a voice, because only then will they perceive the state as just and humane. This has never been a purely technical task that could be solved with mere expertise.

When, that is, under what conditions,

could it happen that states listen to the weak and let them decide on the common good in democratic referendums? History teaches us that until the French Revolution – and for quite a time even afterwards – they were never given this opportunity – at least in all populous (!) agricultural civilizations. The weak had to submit to the strong – this simple rule was largely in force for the last ten thousand years after the Neolithic revolution. And there is no doubt as to where we find the weak. They constituted the ninety percent at the bottom of agricultural societies who had to provide the top ten percent, including the military, with food and labor.  If they did not like it, they were simply forced to do so. Our whole civilization rests, as Will Durant pointed out, on the man with the hoe or the plough.

Etienne de la Boétie, the early departed friend of Michel de Montaigne,

did not see matters in this way. He thought that the masses could easily shake off their yoke. All they had to do was to understand that in every country they were the overwhelming majority. If all of them were to suddenly give up their allegiance and cooperation, all thrones would instantly be shaken. Obviously, this was an illusion; de la Boétie had overlooked that momentous discovery after the Neolithic revolution that was to change the course of history more than any other. It turned out that the exploitation of the many by the few was no problem at all, because a huge crowd of scattered peasants, chained to the clod by their daily work, could easily be controlled by a small number of armed and mobile fighters.

The weak only gained

voice and power, when their participation in the state was not only indispensable – the supply of food and labor had always been so – but when furthermore they had the possibility of exercising collective resistance. Democracy presupposes a shift of power. In small communities such as Switzerland, working people (a population predominantly active in agriculture) had already managed to govern themselves before the Industrial Revolution; in populous states this occurred only after the French and American revolutions, when industrialization was responsible for the crowding of thousands of people in factories and towns, so that they created dangerous centers of upheaval. In France, it was first the bourgeoisie that snatched actual power over the state from a nobility that had increasingly slipped into dysfunction since the suppression of the “Fronde”. The aristocratic elite with its monopolistic hold on power was replaced by a bourgeois demos – but the bourgeoisie was still a minority. Only when the mature Industrial Revolution brought masses of workers together in the confined space of urban factories did the exploited finally achieve power. They realized that through strikes they could completely paralyze normal life. Whether we like it or not, only the possession of real power gave a voice to the “small people”.  Only then did an idealistic democratic program gradually turn into democratic reality anchored in incontestable power.

But not even this condition is sufficient,

to render democracy possible. China has a vast hinterland with people, many of whom still continue to live in dire poverty. As long as this reservoir is available to the Communist Party, it can easily suppress workers’ uprisings, because it simply replaces protesters with people who are worse off than they and are therefore happy to take over the post of insurgents. What the historian has always known – the philosopher must learn to his chagrin: Democracy has never been the child of insight and philanthropy but of power. This also applies, of course, to the United States, where superficial knowledge may lead to a different picture. The Pilgrim Fathers upheld human equality and equal rights as a matter of religious conviction, but this conviction did not include people of other religious beliefs and traditions. The conquerors of the New Continent never had the idea of considering as their equals the autochthonous Indians or later the black skinned slaves. Quite soon they were not even willing to overlook the great differences in wealth among the Christians themselves, let alone the differences of gender. Until the twentieth century, voting rights in the United States remained restricted to white men equipped with a certain minimum level of property. This minority quite rightly feared that otherwise they would be expropriated by the poor through democratic voting.

In the US as well as in Europe,

true democracy only existed in those happy three to four decades after the end of World War II, when the entire population was needed to create and maintain the unique mass prosperity that the fossil revolution together with technical progress had rendered possible. Hannah Arendt compared the two types of revolution preceding the process of democratization in the second half of the 18th century, namely the French and the American. She preferred the because it proceeded without guillotines and mass murder. But we should insist that in both revolutions, the decisive factor was power. The masses could exert pressure to make their demands heard. As long as this was not the case, i.e. about ten thousand years, they served as nameless workhorses in the service of minorities, who ruthlessly instrumentalized them for their own purposes. In other words: strong men are the lot of weak peoples.

The future of democracy

is highly uncertain for precisely this reason. Once more democracy is threatened because in our time states are much less dependent on the mass of their citizens than during the first three decades after the end of the Second World War.

Two factors contributed significantly to this change. On the one hand, a majority of workers and employees are now in direct competition with low-cost labor all over the world, be it in India, China, South America and in a few years’ time probably also in Africa. Those who go on strike or refuse to work no longer exert substantial pressure because they can be replaced a hundredfold by cheaper labor abroad. From this perspective, it may even be said that more and more people are simply superfluous. From a purely economic point of view, they even represent a burden because the Western welfare state still guarantees them a minimum income through social welfare. More and more well-educated citizens are becoming superfluous too because they are being replaced by automation and artificial intelligence thus being forced into unemployment.

In fact, we can hardly conceive a greater contrast

than that between post-war Europe and our current situation. At that time, Germany and other Western states enticed people away from their homelands, first Italians then Turks, because their own manpower did not suffice to meet the demands of a flourishing industry in rapid reconstruction. Today the industry is still in need of manpower but of a very special kind – it only requires above-average talent and knowledge – the masses are no longer needed. They either drop out of the work process altogether and increase the potential of the “precarious” and the “superfluous” or they are fobbed off with increasingly lower wages. Then we get full employment accompanied by a standard of living that is shrinking in relative or even absolute terms.

This ominous development

is now characteristic of all Western states with falling growth rates – and it naturally produces the erosion of democracy, because the masses no longer possess real power: They are no longer needed. That is why the United States – for a time the undisputed democratic model for the whole rest of the world – is today what Noam Chomsky never tires of accusing it: a plutocracy where the upper one percent determine the fate of the lower 99 percent. They constitute a de facto plutocracy although even up to Donald Trump they still preserve the external trappings of a democratic state. Presidential candidates from among the people are subjected to a kind of gauntlet to test their obedience. Each of the many consecutive election events devours vast amounts of money, most of which has to come from donations by the upper one percent. In this way, it is made sure that candidates will represent the interests of the reigning plutocracy, as otherwise they will be quickly eliminated.

Only when the weak acquire power

do they have a voice too. But the outsourcing of industrial production has severely curtailed their power, and now digitalization is having the same effect. Such a development does, certainly, not bode well for democracy. On the other hand, urbanization has created a new situation by cancelling out the dispersion that for thousands of years was responsible for the ninety per cent of farmers being effortlessly controlled and exploited by a small band of armed mercenaries. The concentration of so many, often millions of people in the confines of metropolitan areas gives discontented masses the opportunity to completely paralyze urban life – thus providing them with a means of pressure never before seen. The Occupy Wall Street movement, the yellow vests in France, the insurgents in Hong Kong and Barcelona and in many other urban hot spots around the world are proof that this form of mass protest will continue to spread in the future.

Not only one-party dictatorships like China

but Western states too recognize this danger and are moving to protect themselves against it by increasingly monitoring their own citizens. Usually they do so under the pretext of fighting terrorism. The most perfect surveillance system seems to be realized in present-day China. There, citizens are monitored around the clock in all public places and domesticated by means of a points system. Depending on good behavior or rebelliousness he will be awarded plus or minus points that determine his future career. The citizens of Communist China are spied upon as comprehensively as in earlier times – but in a far more imperfect way – only the Church was able to do through its confessionals, but then these secrets were rarely passed on to the worldly power. Western countries have not yet perfected collective surveillance to the same degree, but we may assume that they too will be unable to resist the temptation. Technology is made ever cheaper, and one or two terrorist attacks are usually enough to convince a majority of the usefulness of surveillance.

What will prove to be stronger,

the ability of the masses, concentrated in narrow urban spaces, to render entire cities and states unable to function when their rights or demands are being denied, or the ability of a government to keep the masses muzzled and powerless through omnipresent surveillance and through its influence on public opinion? If “superfluous” masses possess no real power, are they still strong enough when threatening destruction? Will weak peoples prevent the rise of strong men?

But is this really the question 

that will decide our future? Democracy and freedom are a luxury of prosperity and advanced civilization. Societies in poverty and need – not to speak of war – tend to restrict and suppress popular freedom. They call for strong men in order to achieve unity both within the state and in its relation to others. This fact explains why corporations are almost never ruled democratically. They live in constant war, that is in constant competition with each other. They need strong and competent men at the top able to combine all forces in order to react with lightning speed to changing circumstances. Freedom requires security, the exact opposite of constant threat. For those who have tasted it once, it is the greatest good of all. To be sure, the peoples of Europe are right when nostalgically looking back at the half century after the war, when freedom and democratic self-determination were granted to them on a scale historically quite unique. I think, nevertheless, that it would be rash to see nothing more in the renaissance of strong men than a relapse in times of disaster.

At least I conceive strong men as a perhaps inevitable evil,

because the two greatest challenges of the 21st century, the ecological catastrophe and the danger of nuclear self-extinction, will hardly be overcome in a democratic way. Although the globe has succeeded in giving itself a democratic represen­tation, the United Nations, this organization has long since become a powerless plaything of the great superpowers. It is not they, but the latter who will decide whether nature and mankind will survive the present century, as it is only they who have the power to put an end to the apocalyptic arms race and to ecological catastrophe.

We must hope that strong men at the head of the superpowers will recognize the double threat and finally take joint decisions for the sake of common survival.

The following eMail I got from William E. Rees, “father” of the ecological footprint:

Dear Gero Jenner,

Having just read your latest piece on the frailty of democracy, I am (again) left by two impressions, the first somewhat vague and amorphous, the second more concrete: 
1) Your interpretations of history, both recent and more remote, have a kind of assured insistence that sets my own untutored impressions resonating.  To put it another way, your writing is like an intellectual mold that forces together and gives coherence to previously disconnected elements of both my conscious thinking and subliminal feelings of ill-ease.  The end result is greater confidence in my own sense of foreboding. 
2) I am forcefully reminded of how woefully and arrogantly narrow was my ‘training’ as a scientist.  Some years ago I realized that the world would be a better place if no one could pursue a degree or career in science without first succeeding in liberal arts/humanities. Each of your columns reinforces this view. 

That said, you are not infallible! Something in your recent piece nudged me to re-read an earlier column, It’s mankind, stupid, (indeed!) where you note that no place has greater numbers of billionaires than China.  Perhaps this was just a rhetorical device but, for the record, it seems that:
“The United States has the most billionaires in the world, with 420 more than the next closest country, China, according to Wealth-X’s 2019 Billionaire Census report. There are 705 billionaires in the United States, 285 in China, 146 in Germany, 102 in Russia, and 97 in the United Kingdom.
“The combined net worth of US billionaires exceeds the total billionaire wealth of the next eight highest-ranked countries (China, Germany, Russia, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Hong Kong, India, and Saudi Arabia).”
Just being nit-picky, but there it is.

Best wishes,

Bill Rees

William E Rees, PhD, FRSC
Professor Emeritus

My answer: I

Dear Mr. Rees,
I hope you don’t mind that I publish your comment at the end of my article. You are, of course, perfectly right to remind me how far I am from infallibility. When too much trusting my sources, I do not submit the evidence, especially numbers and figures, to the degree of scrutiny they would require – my apologies! (The mistake is now corrected).
Let me add that I am always very glad to hear your comments. They are more helpful than those I am accustomed to – and which I mostly don’t even mention. Natural scientists are wont to overlook what Pascal called “la raison du coeur” while those who listen to that secret voice are in danger of sometimes getting their numbers wrong.
Many thanks
Gero Jenner