The Two Democracies
This war between the two democracies is still under way. It had been the failure and – to most intellectuals of the time – the tremendous disappointment of the theory and practice of Rousseau’s collectivist freedom that provoked the most sensitive minds – of which Mill’s was certainly one – to retreat from it in search of a more workable alernative.[i] More than any other document, his On Liberty spelled out that theory, and the experiment in individualist freedom Mill articulated there is still unfolding, for better or worse, within almost every Western democracy.*
[page bottom] * We must note the paradox that it is doing so in the very bosom of the most overweaning and oppressively regulatory welfare states ever constructed, all duly voted into power by many millions of self-styled democrats. This is the great inarticulate, if not unconscious social mystery of modern times: How is it possible for such an objectively unfree people to carry on believing they are the most free, all laying mental and legal claims to the most extravagant personal freedoms as democratic rights without regard to society as a whole, even as they rely heavily on the State for social benefits, control and material support? This paradox can only be explained by exposing the theoretical and mystical roots of the individualist democratic strain and its effects as a destroyer of traditional society. In the last chapter a resolution of the contradiction between individualism and collectivism is proposed.
Suffice it to say that while Mill was thrashing all this out, the old Rousseauistic yearning for a collective freedom of the whole people surged once again in a series of irruptions we remember as the many minor revolutions and skirmishes of Nineteenth Century Europe. And then, as we know too well, it gathered more steam and created a murderous havoc in the Twentieth. The key to understanding this havoc lies in distinguishing between practical surface events and their underlying causes. For example, although many would argue that World War Two was fought because Hitler invaded Poland, and thereby threatened to throw the chains of German rule over all Europe, that fact should be considered a symptom, and therefore only microhistory. The true underlying cause, or macrohistory, was the momentous historical conflict between two bitterly opposed ideas of freedom, and had Hitler or Churchhill never existed, others would probably have arisen to give them symbolic voice. The entire Cold War was but a continuation of this same conflict. Indeed, the political story of the modern Western world for at least the past two centuries has been about the continuing struggle between the outright spiritual yearning for a secular democracy of the One, and the equally spiritual, though nicely disguised pragmatic – and still keenly problematic – democracy of the Many. Simplified, it is a battle between Rousseau and Mill. Modern times must thus be seen as a grand theatre in which Western civilization continues its internal struggle to invent an acceptable political form lying somewhere between the two extremes of collective unity, and mass autonomy; between a mystical corporate body into which all individuals are dissolved, and a mass of autonomous individuals suffering from the absence of a corporate body.
The impulse for a radical collective freedom seems dormant now, except for small pockets of the world, but we would be foolish to believe it cannot surface again. Many observers worry that it will be reborn globally in the name of freedom from the thighs of American democracy – where, as in Canada, its softer welfare State form has been gaining ground – and that it is this very urge that drives American foreign policy. American liberal democracy, as one critic put it, “has become an ‘armed doctrine’ … as well as a human right, and both sides of the American party spectrum have called for the use of force and public money to bring its blessings to other people.”[ii] Indeed, what distinguished America from all previous regimes “is a persistent and self-proclaimed commitment to the promotion of democracy as an integral element of its foreign policy and its long-standing confidence [in] all ‘good things’.”[iii] This soft but confused idea of a collective freedom now increasingly motivates the mignions of the United Nations, who seem to share a salvationist vision of a secular administrative “democracy” they would like to see sprouting in every nation, family, factory, school, and mind on earth in what they imagine as a universal war against ignorance, oppression, and want.
Mill The Moralist
Behind most assertions lies paradox. Mill’s asserts a coldly logical utilitarianism, but he was actually a tough-minded moralist trapped by what at first seem contradictions in his own logic. He was a stern moralist for all matters public, and a stern libertarian for all matters private. You could be bad in private all you want, but not in public. As Himmelfarb put it, “if he insisted upon the legality of private immoral acts, he did not deny the fact of their immorality.”[iv] Of course, this attempt to divide private from public morality is what got him into difficulties with critics then and now, simply because morality has no meaning if it is not public. Famous Victorians such as Newman, Carlyle, and Arnold, and others rightly accused him of reductionism and simplicity. Charles Kingsley, originally enthusiastic, later said that when he looked upon Mill’s “cold, clear-cut face” during a visit in 1869, he could not but conclude that “there is a whole hell beneath him, of which he knows nothing, and so there must be a whole heaven above him.”[v]
However, showing that his thoughts are not logical – and this is rather easy – has not stopped mainstream democratic civilization from accepting Mill’s views almost wholesale. It has done so because Mill’s moral division has had the effect of legitimizing a broad range of human conduct formerly considered selfish, perverse, or immoral by removing it from the public square. The result, not quite a century and a half later was that when U.S. President Slick Willy Clinton, then the most powerful public figure on earth, perhaps in history, puffed on the Lewinsky cigar, Americans far and wide – or at least the powerful liberal media persona that speaks for them – sniffed that his private sexual conduct (basically cheating on his wife in the Oval Office and aggressively lying about it for months on end) was his own business, and unrelated to his political life. The people he governed refused to connect his private moral weakness with public weakness. They refused to consider that if he could not be trusted in private life, he could not be trusted in public life. The reason, I suggest, is that millions of adults were stridently adamant about preserving the same private de-moralized zone for themselves, whether for their present or future conduct. De-moralization of personal conduct is now considered a private right.
This simply means that we have taken Mills private/public division farther than he ever intended. For Mill himself never denied immorality, and the fact that Clinton’s behaviour occurred in the most public office on the planet would in his mind have called for immediate impeachment. We have not merely privatized certain forms of immorality, as Mill arguably encouraged us to do, we have neutralized them! And this has had the effect of eliminating an enormous range of moral questions from human life altogether. Mill never went that far, and so contradictions do seem to abound in his thinking. But I submit they are more easily resolved once we get beneath the surface and behold the deeper structure of his belief system as revealed in On Liberty. That work is particularly striking and revealing because it shows how his seemingly disconnected thoughts form themselves into a coherent ideology, by which I mean an autonomous system of interdependent ideas. A thinker’s partial meanings can always be grasped from knowledge of things said. But the total meaning can only be grasped by how the ideas work together to produce something more than what was said, often in the context of what the thinker has intentionally omitted or perhaps refused to say because he was aware of possible objections or contradictions. The job of the interpreter is to reveal the systematic nature of a thinker’s ideas, showing how they form a kind of architecture, or structure of interdependent axioms or assumptions, such that if any single assumption is removed the structure collapses.
One example of this should suffice. The cornerstone of Mill’s belief system in On Liberty, surely his most influential work, is his faith in the natural goodness of a liberated mankind spontaneously progressing toward ever higher stages of civilization. Every word is essential to his meaning. If his most radical and Gnostic assertion concerning natural goodness is removed, however, then the rest of the argument collapses. Let us now examine a number of other key assumptions and see how, due to their interdependence they are vulnerable to collapse.
Mill’s Talking Cure and The Good Society
On one hand Mill promoted individual self-fulfillment, or the authentic self as the highest good. On the other he promoted a good society based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, asserting once again: “I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions” (1). There is a revealing tension in this statement. Mill ridicules all public moral opinion if it oppresses even a single contrary voice, and yet he sets up “utility” – a majoritarian public standard of the greatest number – as the “ultimate” appeal on ethical questions. Two principles are here in mortal conflict, for in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number an individual may be oppressed, but in the name of individual self-fulfillment, society and morality may be ignored. Mill attempted to escape this conflict by arguing for the social utility of increased individual freedom through the operation of what might be called his “perpetual talking cure” or the dialectic of dialogue: a blind faith that truth arises spontaneously from free discussion and the healthy collision of contrary ideas.
Mill’s had a pervasive belief in the movement of humankind toward the good and considered the utopian possibilities of freedom to be boundless. Even the advanced elements of civilization inhabiting the civilized parts of the world, he felt were but “starved specimens of what nature can and will produce” (3). He refused to specify any final good of society in the belief that to do so is oppressive. The good will change with circumstances, arising spontaneously by the force of nature whenever humans are liberated from public opinion and social coercion. However, many commentators have correctly noted that the reason Mill was incapable of naming the moral good of society was because he so violently repudiated the religious roots of goodness. He was “the first of that characteristic pattern of contemporary liberal thinkers that are distinguished by their inability to satisfactorily account for the source of their convictions.”[vi] He found religion, custom, and concrete tradition oppressive, so he sourced his convictions in a Romantic ideal of creative freedom that he was convinced would produce an abstract future perfection.
Spontaneous Progress: History and Social Perfection
Mill was careful to apply his principle of human liberty only to “human beings in the maturity of their faculties” (1), never to those underage, to dependents, or to “backward” societies or races. He proposed benevolent “despotism” as the best system for the governance of “barbarians,” and specified that his liberty principle does not apply until a society “has become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion” (1). A number of things are revealed here. He has a blinding faith in natural reason as a continuous moral principle that begins operating only at an advanced stage of human liberty and knowledge, when “mankind shall have entered a stage of intellectual advancement which at present seems at an incalculable distance” (2). The active agency of improvement is free and equal discussion, which he thinks cannot result in corruption, because corruption is caused by ignorance, and not sin.
Mill’s imaginative world is thus sharply dualistic. Mankind moves from darkness to the light of knowledge, or gnosis. History unfolds as a structure of revelation, a progressive movement toward an increasingly enlightened future. Without the gnosis of libertarian freedom mankind remains a force of ignorance blocking this progress toward social and moral perfection. He equates the “progressive principle” with liberty, improvement, and emancipation from the yoke of Custom [sic] which binds us as tightly as the chains of Rousseau. He is certain we cease to be progressive whenever we cease to express individuality. The contest between Progress and Custom is to Mill “the chief interest of the history of mankind” (3) and it generates the chief tension of his moral framework.
That framework is a secularized, expectational view of history on the Christian model. History is not static. Nor is there any overarching cycle of recurring events, no wheel of fortune, or retribution, or fate. Rather, History moves by the revelations of free discussion or dialogically-derived truths (plural) toward a final condition of harmony and simplicity. This is a carefully muted but distinctly mystical-millenarian vision. Diversity, and not unity of opinion is important at present because “mankind are imperfect” (3), truth being revealed only “when the human mind is capable of receiving it” (2). The truth-process can begin only when the knower experiences unencumbered freedom and is thus prepared for enlightenment, for the movement toward what Mill calls “Supreme Goodness” and “the moral regeneration of mankind” (2), or the Kingdom of Heaven on earth that our moribund Christianity – which now produces only “the low, abject, servile type of character” (2) – can no longer create. Truth is thus created in a step-wise, logical fashion according to Mill’s “laws” of association, authenticity, and utility. Despite his initial reservations, Mill transformed the idea of utility by attaching to it the necessity for “the cultivation of an ideal nobleness of will and conduct.” In other words, individual freedom is be constrained and moved forward by a final overarching abstract principle having to do not with the quantity of opinion, but with its quality. Utility was henceforward to be “grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being” (1) [italics mine], interests which “authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control” wherever others may be impeded. This basically means if you don’t agree with Mill’s view of progress you may be legitimately suppressed.
We soon see that Mill’s “absolute” principle of freedom was far from absolute in practice. He seems seldom to have acknowledged that wherever society is said to “progress,” it must have a goal, or end, and limitations must then be placed on the individual liberty of those who oppose or ignore its realization. Although he began as an atheist rejecting a religious good, or indeed any ends established by society, Mill finished by substituting for them his own abstract ideal of the good.
[i] Although Mill was one of those souls plainly shocked at the evil unleashed in Europe in the name of freedom, this did not stop him from musing, in what must qualify as one of history’s most flagrant examples of opportunistic understatement (Mill, Op.Cit., p.62), that the atrocities of the French Revolution, were “temporary aberrations,” and the heinous murder of French citizens before huge baying crowds the work of a “usurping few.” Such statements were so much intellectual positioning required to dissassociate the democratic bloodbath of the Revolution from his personal hopes for democracy and the human “progress” of civilization on which his theory depended. So much for how the heart leads the head.
[ii] Paul Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State ( New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999), p.17.
[iii] Laurence Whitehead, cited in Gottfried, Ibid.
[iv] Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Introduction” to Mill, On Liberty, Op. Cit., p.48.
[v] Ibid., p.46. The critical responses of other famous Victorians are described briefly in pp.41-46 of this book.
[vi] David Walsh, The Growth of the Liberal Soul (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1997). In “Minimum Consensus of Liberal Politics,” pp. 136-148, Walsh deals with the broad topic of the liberal flight from moral transendence. The quote referenced is at p.143. .