Uncontrollable Passion


A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, by Benjamin Barber, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 293 pages, $26.95

A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, by Benjamin Barber, New York: Hill and Wang, 166 pages, $22.00

As the Berlin Wall fell and expectations rose across Central Europe a decade ago, the newly released subjects of the Soviet empire began to contemplate normalization of their lives. Among the many avenues of free activity opening to them, the one that most fully comprehended the scope of the ongoing transformation was joining the company of the world's democracies. Throughout the century, no other political ideal has possessed comparable resonance with peoples everywhere. From Woodrow Wilson's crusade to make the world safe for democracy through today's fractious wrangling in East Timor and elsewhere, the aspiration for satisfactory social institutions within which ordinary men and women might carve out decent lives typically expresses itself as the desire for democracy.

The world's enduring love affair with democracy is familiar. But it is not without puzzles. How can an occasional trip to the polls by those citizens who bestir themselves every couple of years to pull some levers bear the moral weight that has been built into the democratic ideal? What's really so special about democracy? Turning to the writings of the great modern political philosophers deepens the puzzle. For with very few exceptions, democracy is presented as a distinctly secondary desideratum, a means toward other goods more directly prized.

In the writings of John Locke, the first great liberal theorist, the paramount end of political association is vindication of individuals' rights to life, liberty, and property via maintenance of civil peace. Because men see the world from distinct perspectives, they will differ in their views concerning how best to uphold that peace. In practical affairs a choice must be made whether to go this way or that, and it only makes sense that, all else equal, the body politic move according to the will of the greater rather than the lesser faction. And that, crucially, is all. There is no imputation of wisdom or virtue to majorities as such. Lest they become tyrannical, legislative bodies are to be constrained in their operations by the antecedent rights of citizens and tamed as much as is feasible by divided institutions of sovereignty and a robust shield of law. With some additions and modifications, this is the scheme anticipated by the Declaration of Independence, promulgated by the Federalist Papers, and successfully enshrined in the Constitution. Our central institutions were designed to be democratic, but warily so.

Winston Churchill's is the best-known statement of the pragmatic case for democracy: Democracy is the worst form of government–except for all the rest. We prize democracy not for what it is but for what it is not. Reshuffling the occupants of Westminster or the White House via periodic elections may not guarantee streams of statesmanlike benefactors, but at least it seems to relieve us of rule by Ceausescus, Pol Pots, and Saddams. Through voting we have an opportunity to "throw the rascals out," and if their offices are quickly reoccupied by a new cohort of rascals, well, we shall in due course be able to hand them their walking papers too.

Political theory is incapable of providing a convincing theoretical justification for preferring a regime of democratically elected nonentities to rule by a virtuous meritocracy pledged to serve the common good (the latter is more or less Aristotle's idea of the best form of governance), but those aren't the choices on offer. Benevolent despots tend to remain much more reliably despotic than benevolent, and Lockean rights typically receive short shrift at their hands.

Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore remains a mecca for free transactions, but one had best not speak too openly whilst within reach of its gendarmes. The nepotistic corruption of Suharto's Indonesia was conveniently overlooked while the country had its run as a high-achieving economic dragon. But after paper values collapsed and streets erupted in ideological and ethnic strife, strongman rule looked distinctly less attractive. Pinochet restored to Chile vigorous economic health and representative institutions, but at least 3,000 unaccounted-for corpses remain for his admirers something of an embarrassment. As Madison notes in the Federalist Papers, human beings are not angels, and so we do best to clip the wings of our governors. The great advantage of democracy in this respect is that rule by timeservers is preferable to rule by tyrants.

Running parallel to the tradition of political philosophy in which democratic institutions serve as means to other goods is a powerful subcurrent that understands democratic activity as intrinsically valuable, a necessary constituent of the good life in society. This alternative tradition, given its deepest modern expression by Rousseau but with roots in Aristotle's philosophy and the civic republicanism of the Renaissance, is deeply suspicious of liberal individualism. It derides as "atomistic" the view that the common good is nothing more than the sum of individuals' separate preferences. Unlike buyers and sellers in the market, say proponents of this view, we do not approach each other as solitary extenders of quids to exchange for quos. Rather, we are essentially gregarious animals, and that means that what we do together matters at least as much as what we might do severally. Politics, then, is not simply an overarching framework within which individuals angle to secure private satisfactions but rather a domain in which we come together as beings who achieve a sense of meaning and purpose, who transcend the limitations of solitary selves, through constructing a common identity as citizens.

For three decades Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of the school's Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, has carried the banners of Rousseau and of the Thomas Jefferson who apotheosizes a nation of virtuous and politically vigilant freeholders (although, as we shall see, not the Jefferson who affirms the priority of individuals' rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). At a time when most prominent theorists of the left were hostile or, at best, ambivalent toward American (or Amerikan) traditions, Barber held up images of the nation's past as proud templates for correcting what he took to be its deeply flawed present. He was respectful but less than adulatory toward things Marxian, advocating a power to the people that was distinctly more populist than the one favored by the gerontocracy in Moscow and its American apologists.

These deviations from the norms of his native ideological ecosystem may have marginalized Barber during the early stages of his career. But with the disintegration of the Soviet Union and increasing desperation, even in university humanities departments, among leftists hoping to sketch a socialism with a human face, Barber's brand of progressive politics is attracting favorable notice from those in need of a new cudgel with which to pummel free markets and globalization. It doesn't hurt that, in an arena in which turgid, jargon-ridden prose is the rule, Barber can spin a phrase with the dexterity of Derek Jeter turning a double play at second base. And in a country in which it is an article of faith for many that the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy, the fervor that Barber avows in the title of his collected articles, A Passion for Democracy, is an additional asset.

Make no mistake, though: The object of Barber's affections is not the routine business of periodic elections and representative institutions. Toward these the dominant passion he displays is disdain. Nor does Barber have much time for public choice theory's concerns about voters' rational ignorance. He glibly remarks, "a citizen need be no more technically knowledgeable than Ronald Reagan to be effective–for surely we need not ask more of citizens than of presidents." Of course presidents, unlike ordinary individuals, are full-time occupants of their political role and with the press of a button can avail themselves of endless oceans of expertise, but these differences aren't allowed to get in the way of a clever dig. Rehabilitation of the occasional voter isn't part of Barber's design anyhow. To the contrary, he disparages the voter as he extols the citizen. The former, maintains Barber, enjoys freedom only on the day he casts a ballot, and in voting to be represented renounces that freedom. The citizen, on the other hand, is active not passive, is continuously rather than intermittently involved in the practice of collective decision making, and values political activity intrinsically rather than merely as an instrument necessary for providing a grab bag of other goods.

Barber labels this high-octane politics "strong democracy." But strong in what sense? In the best-case scenario, strong with regard to the status and dignity accorded to ordinary citizens. At least as noteworthy, however, is the magnitude of the demands placed on them. Among other attractions, strong democracy incorporates weekly neighborhood forums for which people diligently prepare themselves via electronic distance learning, community action programs requiring contributions of sweat rather than mere dollars, and two years of universal civic service that is one part productive activity and three parts education in the practice of citizenship.

Suppose, not implausibly, that most people prefer a less total immersion in political activity, that they assign higher priority to hiking in the woods, watching Simpsons reruns, singing in the church choir, golfing, gossiping, playing Parcheesi with their kids, making money, making love, or simply making a way in the world according to their own lights. Each hour devoted to the various strands of strong democracy is an hour unavailable for these alternative human activities. Intensive political involvement is very much a minority taste, and many of those who choose to immerse themselves in politics do so not in order to advance a disinterested ideal of the common good but to manipulate political levers for their own material advancement. How does Barber propose to persuade them to alter their priorities?

He doesn't. Persuasion is too frail a reed to support the structure of a populist utopia, so Barber is altogether willing to substitute stouter beams of coercion. Strong democracy's central function is not to make policy but to make citizens, and it does so via hands-on instruction in the practice of self-rule. Just as children are required to attend school to earn the perquisites of adults, so too are political novices to be enrolled in collective enterprises through which they earn the proud status of citizen. In neither case is one permitted to play hooky.

It follows that strong democracy gives short shrift to liberty. Barber is fully aware of this opposition and, following an ancient if not honorable philosophical practice, attempts to define it away. In A Passion for Democracy, he approvingly cites Rousseau's dictum that "the instant a people allows itself to be represented it loses its freedom" and expands on it with the announcement that "women and men who are not directly responsible through common deliberation, common decision, and common action for the policies that determine their common lives are not really free at all–however much they enjoy rights of privacy, property, and individuality." So, like Rousseau, Barber will force them to be free.

It is easily understandable why someone would value freedom in the ordinary sense of being let alone to pursue the ends and activities she prizes, but it is not clear what reason there is to care about the so-called freedom that emerges from Barber's definitional alchemy. Barber should not be surprised if people who assign higher priority to private activities decline the invitation to be conscripted into liberation.

Barber's understanding of rights is no less revisionary than his take on freedom. How can someone who isn't free be characterized coherently as enjoying rights of privacy, property, and individuality? Privacy rights incorporate, among other things, a freedom to determine who will have access to intimate aspects of one's life; property rights entail the freedom to appropriate and trade things; and whatever individuality may be, it surely includes a liberty within broad boundaries to steer one's own course rather than have it prescribed by others–including those others who happen to hold prestigious professorships at elite universities.

This confusion may not disturb Barber much, though, because rights are of derivative importance in his system. Rather than serving to constrain the scope of majoritarian decision making so as to preclude tyranny and usurpation, rights in his telling are whatever the people in their democratic assemblies determine they shall be. Strong democracy, then, is not only direct but also omnipotent. It countenances no checks set by original and inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That is why the evocations of Jefferson in these pages, although reverential and oft-repeated, ring hollow.

Barber's populism lacks a core. He exalts The People in the abstract but exhibits smug disdain for real men and women. Because they don't possess what he will deign to recognize as freedom, their choices and preferred modes of life are inauthentic and thus do not merit respect. His 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld is largely given over to excoriations of McDonald's, not because that corporation fails to meet the demands of consumers in America and throughout the world but precisely because it does. (Barber there lets us know that his own tastes run to the superior ambience of out-of-the-way bistros.) He is similarly dismissive of the "free" market –scare quotes come with the territory–in ideas and entertainments because its favored commodities are homogenized and declassé.

As proof that nominal freedom of entry and consumer sovereignty are illusory, Barber offers this observation: "I have a home page on the net just like Bill Gates and the Disney Corporation….But does anyone really believe that the common capacity to produce a home page is the same thing as the common power to affect the world?" This is perhaps the most revealing depiction of strong democracy offered in these books: It is a social order in which Benjamin Barber is among the prime movers and shakers of the world!

I don't mean to suggest that Barber is dissembling when he declares a passion for democracy. Just the reverse: He is passionate to a fault. Love is elevated and ennobling but, as we all know, it can be blind. In the throes of passion one is inclined to see the beloved object as one wishes it to be, not as it really is. Love frequently is possessive, demanding reciprocation and exclusivity. When spurned it lashes out vindictively. Benjamin Barber courts an electorate that persistently rejects his embrace and instead obdurately holds onto its own affections. It thereby shows itself unworthy to be the object of devotion of so ardent a lover. But rather than acquiesce in rejection and give up the chase, the swain will turn the tables, transform the drab voter-consumer into beauteous citizen, and once and for all win her favors–if not through seduction then by rape.

These two volumes are a disparate pair. Once one gets past the rabble-rousing, the essays in A Passion for Democracy offer nuggets of keen historical insight and every so often connect with a sharp dart to the complacent regions of liberal capitalism. A Place for Us, on the other hand, is the sort of potboiler someone plumping to be invited back to the Clinton White House might produce. It is grumpy about the economy, grumpy about the dominant culture, and grumpy most of all about politics. But it cheers up long enough to offer a bushel of nostrums for each.

These newest add-ons to the strong democracy contraption weren't very sturdy when they were contrived, and the passage of time renders them increasingly embarrassing. For example, in a prediction that ranks with the one that declared the Titanic to be unsinkable, Barber informs the reader that the American economy has entered a state of permanent stagnation and vanishing employment. Bad news? No, actually it's good news, because it neatly solves the problem of ordinary citizens' finding time for endless political convocations. The other rooms of this "place for us" display similar fitness for habitation.

Particulars aside, the real service these books provide is to display under a bright light what the scientific study of politics leaves obscure: not only how democracy can serve as a tool for supplying various goods and services but also how it can engage the passions. Benjamin Barber's commitment to strong democracy is reminiscent of other enthusiasms for other political ideals that have roiled the past century. Like them, it mixes expressed devotion to the people with unbounded zeal to mold them, shape them, and enlist them in the service of designs that are not their own. Ultimately, the most valuable lesson we take from these pages is that a passion for democracy is not necessarily either innocent or safe for those in its line of fire.