“Direct” Democracy

I remember owning an undergraduate textbook called Models of Democracy. Today, you can read a comparable text (irrespective of whether you consider it authoritative or not) by simply typing the word ‘democracy’ into Wikipedia. Having done so recently, I was reminded momentarily of various theories to which I have not given much thought for quite a long time.

The inkling that led me to do so was witnessing a couple of surprising You Tube videos. One did not surprise me because of its contents but because of its participant: although 92 years old, Noam Chomsky is still “on the go” as a supremely articulate, if unconvincing, commentator.

He was suggesting that experiments in “direct” democracy in the 1960s did have an affect on the grounds that, superficial appearances aside, the nature of society “then” would actually be pretty unrecognisable “now” and things have actually “got better”. The other surprising You Tube video was seeing, for the first time, an interview with Aldous Huxley (d.1963), who is one of those many authors who seemed interesting to me when I was in my early twenties, if only because I do not think that I was exposed to similar lines of thought before reading authors like him at that time.

Sixty years apart as the interviews were, it struck me that here were two intellectuals who were seemingly very interested in the idea of “direct” democracy. When I say direct I am not thinking in terms of all ordinary citizens being able to legislate whatever they want. I am thinking in terms of people wishing to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state and, in particular, their sense of discomfort if such a develop was unlikely to happen. Is this a realistic expectation for an individual to have? And why should people have such a wish or expectation in the first place?

Studying and thinking about international relations in recent times had me surmising to myself that it is not a “hearts and minds” subject: it exists instead in the impersonal realm of statecraft. Is that a fair judgment? For people who get excited over the subject, it probably seems not. But it seems to me that it is. Whither democracy?

For a lot of people who wish to see their internal beliefs reflected externally in the laws of a state, to suggest that the freedom to be non-political is a fundamental human liberty rather than a reactionary stance is unacceptable. Some would even suggest that such an idea is “uneducated”. What, therefore, happened to the debate on the dangers of totalitarianism and the many different forms in which it can exist, invariably with the same root: allegiance to some kind of ideology? Is it simply “gone” in favour of a media spin that professes to sees direct democracy everywhere and within nothing in particular? Sometimes it seems to me that it is so.

If anarchists once equated liberty with a world without states then, contrary to G.K. Chesterton’s century old claim that the Archbishop of Canterbury, or his alter ego in Rome, may perhaps be considered the greatest anarchist of all, perhaps the global corporations of today, in overreaching individual states, have bypassed the danger of the totalitarianism of the state by creating a new hegemony of independent businesses and bankers. Lionel Curtis dreamt of the British Commonwealth becoming a “world government”. America said no to the offer of joining. But it took up the idea of conceiving of a world order. And therein lay the initiative of a World Bank, potentially with rotating chairpersons from different parts of the world although a quick glance at Wikipedia can remind one, if one needs reminding, that they have been predominantly American. Contemporary critics of globalisation have not rejected its premise or its offshoots, such as the United Nations. If it ceased to be, how different a time or place the present might seem. Would artistic media go back to propagating an introspective and individualist imagination like what was seen in Albert Camus’ Rebel or the melodramatic film of competing ideologies Le Combat Dans L’ile? Perhaps.

Maybe Noam Chomsky is right: the world has changed for the better since 1963, albeit not necessarily for the reasons that he purports to believe. Huxley may have felt ambivalent about “brave new worlds” but in his old age he would seem to have come to accept that existing in a society of consumer fodder is preferable to existing in a society of cannon fodder. From there has history been writ anew? If the sadism of the lord of the manor or his soldier victim no longer controls the pen, a military-industrial complex yet remains and is reputedly supreme. May it end up being tempered not by the directness of a vote but by a potentially egalitarian tool like a satellite? Kennedy said so before he was shot in 1963 on the same day that Huxley died. Some people used to pray to a Good Lord because they knew there was no such thing as a good lord on earth nor could there ever be. But if the future of politics lies in the future of satellites, maybe the earth will, in the future, start to reflect the heavens after all? Is there democracy in space? Say no more….

And what if historical conferences in the future no longer involve just historians? Bring the futurologists in too. What will be the result of the debates? A few less Star Wars fans? Or else, perhaps, just another incidental blog in a perennial present. Is that direct enough for you? As a part-time historian, it is usually good enough for me. But one can, of course, go deeper.

If one returns to the idea of “whither democracy in international relations?”, a substitute for that idea (which can explain the equal interest of old academics like Chomsky or non-academics like Huxley) using the same archaic language is “whither humanity (in international relations)?”. There is a subject and a half. If one can conceivable say “direct democracy is impractical” who can say “direct humanity is impractical” and get away with it? Henry Kissinger perhaps…but, seriously speaking, how does one actually define “humanity”?

You see, in “international relations speak”, the parlance of “human rights” is about as nebulous as that of “democracy” yet it is, if anything, a much more deeply philosophical concept. One might expect historians to have much to say about it, therefore, but do historians actually have much to say about the concept? Irish political figures, from the days of DeValera to the present, have often assumed the posture that Ireland is “all for human rights”, but I’m not conscious of many Irish authors, including historians, making an impact in such debates. Or rather, if there are Irish individuals (think Mary Robinson perhaps), they are figures that have left academia, as well as politics, and exist in a rather different orbit from any identifiable sphere within Ireland itself, including its historical debates.

So…whither “Irish think tanks” on the subject (and when will I stop using that archaic word “whither”)? Abroad, there are certainly authors who have spent a lot of time attempting to philosophise about history, seeking an answer to the question of where human rights fits into international relations, if indeed it does. Witnessing a sort of trans-Atlantic, US-EU, debate in recent times online has alerted me to the existence of Samuel Moyn, a historian who has certainly had a lot to say about the subject matter and who previously held a position called “James Bryce Professor of European Legal History” at a leading American university.

Bryce, a native of Belfast who gets a mention or two in the first two chapters of my latest book, could be called an Irishman, but as he was a British diplomat (with a slightly guilty conscience about Ireland, or at least so he hinted in an article he wrote very shortly before he died in 1922) that was certainly not his claim to fame. To a significant extent, it was not even his diplomatic skills that made him famous. Rather, he was a writer who, adopting the intellectual framework of someone who was supposedly deeply interested in human rights, turned heads with his ideas about subjects such as the American constitution and the possibility of forming a League of Nations in Geneva. He was an “ideas man” and people who thought about subjects like “direct democracy” or “human rights” in his day often paid attention to what he said. Did his public profile or his intellect allow him to assume such a standing? Probably both, although if he did not put in the intellectual effort, to be sure, there would not be Professors of European Legal History in the United States today named after him.

How many Irish people can assume the standing of a James Bryce today? Or perhaps more to the point: how many Irish people would even “want” to assume the standing of a James Bryce today, if they could? Don’t ask me, because I don’t know. But I suspect: “not a lot”. But the absence of the same is perhaps telling. Fitting Irish history into international history was the theme of my last book. Let us presume that it could so fit. Then what? Can readings of both Irish and international history start to breathe anew, and in fresh directions, through such a marriage? No more or less than in the case of many other countries’ history, I suspect, but as the old expression goes “don’t hold your breath”. At least, however, it might give me something to think about, when doing an envisioned “Ireland in Europe” study at a future date. If peace in Europe is often seen as a philosophical as much as a legal concept, how much is the same true in Ireland? How many Irish ideas are first or second hand? I don’t know. But perhaps the more Irish historical authors read historical authors like Moyn, the clearer our sense of comparative perspective might become and, with that, what is truly original can be better seen for what it is. And as for “the rest”: I guess it can remain in the public house. Cheers.

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