Descriptive Democracy and Revisionary Democracy

25 July 2009

Saturday


Thrasybulus was an Athenian general and democratic leader. In 411 BC, in the wake of an oligarchic coup at Athens, the pro-democracy sailors at Samos elected him as a general, making him a primary leader of the successful democratic resistance to that coup.

Thrasybulus was an Athenian general and democratic leader. In 411 BC, in the wake of an oligarchic coup at Athens, the pro-democracy sailors at Samos elected him as a general, making him a primary leader of the successful democratic resistance to that coup.

Some months ago in Spreading Democracy: An Historical Perspective I made a distinction between Athenian democracy and Spartan “democracy” and commented on the parallelism between the Bush Doctrine of promoting democracy as a foreign policy objective and the soi-dissant “realism” and pragmatism that now appears as the alternative to promoting democracy. Contemporary foreign policy “realists” are not without a democratic agenda, but their democracy is what we might call “advise and consent” of existing powers-that-be. The more radical Athenian conception of democracy was not content to treat with the powers-that-be, but sought to install democratic regimes in place of traditional powers. Let us call these two models descriptive democracy (for the Spartan and “realist” conception) and revisionary democracy (for the Athenian and Bush Doctrine conception).

strawson individuals

These terms — descriptive democracy and revisionary democracy — have been suggested to me by Strawson’s famous distinction between descriptive metaphysics and revisionary metaphysics in his classic Individuals: An Essay in Descriptive Metaphysics. The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy defines descriptive metaphysics thus:

“Descriptive metaphysics aims to describe the most general features of our conceptual scheme, that is, to describe reality as it manifests itself to the human understanding. Conceptual analysis is its main method. Revisionary metaphysics, on the other hand, attempts to revise our ordinary way of thinking and our ordinary conceptual scheme in order to provide an intellectually and morally preferred picture of the world.”

In precise parallelism to this formulation we may state the following:

Descriptive democracy aims to describe the most general features of our actual political scheme, that is, to describe popular sovereignty as it manifests itself in human experience. Revisionary democracy, on the other hand, attempts to revise our ordinary way of political thinking and our ordinary popular sovereignty in order to provide an intellectually and morally preferred structure of the world.

Given that, at the time Strawson wrote Individuals, metaphysics was still a no-no among Anglo-American analytical philosophers, the fact that Strawson would write an explicit metaphysics at all (even if he took the more conservative tack of descriptive as opposed to revisionary metaphysics) was remarkable, and the distinction with which he began has provided more timid philosophers a rationale to follow his lead.

Not all of Strawson’s formulations so easily fit the democratic parallel. Strawson’s opening sentence is, “Metaphysics has been often revisionary, and less often descriptive.” For us, this would become, “Democracy has been often revisionary, and less often descriptive.” This latter does not hold true. Popular sovereignty has a perennial role in human societies, but it rarely takes the form of revisionary democracy. But Strawson’s claim that, “Revisionary metaphysics is at the service of descriptive metaphysics” (which for us becomes, “Revisionary democracy is at the service of descriptive democracy”), is probably true, even if we might wish otherwise, as the perennial role of descriptive democracy in popular sovereignty sometimes borrows from revisionary democracy, so that the latter is often at the service of the former.

P. F. Strawson formulated the distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics.

P. F. Strawson formulated the distinction between descriptive and revisionary metaphysics.

For all the inadequacies of this parallelism, I find it rather suggestive. It should at least be obvious that revisionary democracy is essentially revolutionary, and once we understand that revisionary democracy is revolutionary it should be obvious that this is its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Revolution exercises a spell over many minds, like an irresistible Siren song, and the dispossessed and disenfranchised can almost always be persuaded to believe that a revolution will bring down the highest and will raise up the lowest. But revolutions are also notoriously ineffective. As Simón Bolívar wrote, “He who serves a revolution plows the sea.”

To return to the distinction between descriptive democracy and revisionary democracy, it occurred to me today that the settlement reached at the Peace of Augsburg treaty signed in 1555, with the formula cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion), embodies, in a different form, the principle of descriptive democracy. What is called the Magisterial Reformation, with its focus on established political rulers, began the Reformation with magistrates. Before industrialization and before the age of Mass Man, the only social class that counted was the elite minority. An ideology at this time could safely ignore the great mass of people and concentrate its efforts on this elite.

Negotiating the Peace of Augsburg

Negotiating the Peace of Augsburg

The principle of cuius regio, eius religio is a principle of democracy for the elites; under the Peace of Augsburg, political rulers — the powers that be of the time — could choose between Catholicism and Protestantism, and their subjects would presumably fall in line behind their sovereign. The European political system of the time, then, had the advise and consent of political elites, who were, with their “democratic participation”, brought within the charmed circle of consultation and thus mollified. This was a democracy descriptive of the actual political institutions of its time: the Peace of Augsburg revised nothing; it explicitly recognized the de facto political institutions of northern Europe.

This tidy little “solution” could not of course last. Even at the time, the newly invented printing press was making possible the creation of mass literary and mass propaganda, hence the first stirrings of Mass Man. The Magisterial Reformation gave way to the Radical Reformation, the genie was let out of the bottle, and Europe lacerated itself until, sickened by war, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 provided a framework in which the political regimes of the time could rationally reconstruct themselves as nation-states.

Descriptive democracy that is concerned to consult only the powers-that-be, assuming that the powerless will fall in behind their “leaders” (whom the powerless usually had no voice in placing in power), is a paradigmatic instance of short-term thinking. Most thought that identifies itself as being “realistic” or “pragmatic” is short term thinking, because it is based on convenience and expediency (which can become accommodation and appeasement), and not on principle. While to stand on principle may seem idealistic and impractical, in the long term it is the only position that will accomplish the realistic and pragmatic results that expediency seeks but fails to achieve.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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