Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
Oh won’t you please take me home
Guns ‘N Roses
This fascinating book is unique amongst radical theories of democracy in that it’s written by a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in psychopathology – as such his primary emphasis is on the (two-way) relationship between political systems and character. Whereas most books focus on the institutional level, Dr. Robbins constantly reminds us that entities like ‘governments’ and ‘nations’ are merely abstractions, by adding (in parentheses) ‘person or persons in power’ every time he uses the word ‘government’. History is ‘nothing but a vast battlefield after the battle is over – a mountain of the corpses of men, women, and children from around the world and across time who have been slaughtered to satisfy the warriors in their quest for blood and glory’ (p.229). Political leaders are subjected to psychoanalytic scrutiny and are (with the exception of a small number of Athenian statesmen) mostly diagnosed in terms of psychopathy – not just the obvious cases (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) or even the usual suspects (Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon), but also less extreme examples like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Dr. Robbins explains the development of psychopathy in terms of dysfunctional childrearing and early maternal relationships, so history is, in effect, reduced to the psychiatrist’s couch. Strangely enough (given his idolisation of Athenian democracy) this explanation is derived from Greek literature, forcing him to conclude that the dysfunctional relationship between mother and son is limited to the Greek aristocracy (p.303). Given that such psychopathic individuals – ‘a special subset of men’ – are fundamentally different from ‘us’ (p.309), then the goal of democracy is not so much ‘power to the people’ as making sure that the bad guys don’t get hold of the reins. Rotation of office (and/or mass participation in government) is not so that we may all, as Aristotle put it, ‘rule and be ruled in turn’ but simply to reduce the likelihood of handing power to a psychopath.
This focus on the character of political leaders leads Robbins to reject Acton’s commonplace: ‘power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ in favour of the noble Lord’s less-cited dictum: ‘great men are almost always bad men’ (p.300). Whereas Acton’s first dictum would lead us to design institutions that limit and constrain power (irrespective of which empirical individuals are in charge), the problem is that all the hard work will be undone when the ‘great and the bad’ seize power. This can give rise to a rose-tinting of history – the French revolutionary settlement was doing just fine (‘a stable oligarchy with democratic leanings’, p.274) until Napoleon’s putsch, ditto with the American revolution until undermined by the nefarious work of Alexander Hamilton and his shadowy co-conspirators Robert Morris [who?] and Gouverneur Morris (pp.135-9). Meanwhile feudal Russia [and Europe] are described as societies with ‘strong democratic elements’ (p.260) until overthrown by Mongolian psychopaths. Mark Goldie also shown the surprisingly large number of people who held minor political office in early-modern England, but in feudal and early-modern society everyone knew his place and those at the top of the pyramid exercised a lot more power than officeholders at the bottom. The comparison of feudal and early-modern societies with (say) Athenian democracy – purely on the basis of the number of officeholders – is surely a little fanciful.
Whilst the focus on the psychopathology of individual political actors might seem incompatible with a class-interest perspective, Robbins’ explanation of the aftermath of the American Revolution is heavily reliant on Charles Beard’s Economic Interpretation of the Constitution. In Beard’s view the 1787 Constitutional Convention led to an antidemocratic counter-revolution by rich Northern bondholders. Beard’s focus is on class conflict (needless to say the bourgeois interests won the battle). This approach causes Robbins to dismiss out of hand Madison’s claim that property rights were the product of ‘diversities in the faculties of men’ (Federalist 10) as a simple rationalisation of the interests of property-owners like himself. In fact the ‘faculty psychology’ on which Madison’s views were based was a popular theory of moral psychology that was closely aligned to Calvinist theology. The crypto-Marxist dismissal of faculty psychology as just the rationalisation of interests fails to do justice to the intellectual climate of the time. Madison genuinely believed that the (professional) social stratum that was likely to be returned by his ‘republican’ system of representation was capable of disinterested judgment (as opposed to the ‘partial’ manufacturing and agricultural interests).
Beard’s ‘Progressive’ thesis was taken up by most historians from the 1930s to the 1950s, but has now been largely discredited as factually incorrect as historians have shifted their focus from interests to the power of ideas (primarily republicanism) in the shaping of the Constitution. Robbins, unfortunately, fails to engage with any of this voluminous literature and what we are left with is an outmoded conspiracy theory of history. Despite that fact that universal suffrage was widespread and that some 80% of voters were small farmers (p.294), Robbins fails to explain exactly how it was possible that a tiny group of oligarchs were able to impose their views on everybody else. If only 2% of Americans owned bonds (ibid.), and most American males had the vote, then why did they end up with a form of government designed to protect the interests of bondholders? It’s true that many of the newspapers were in Federalist (oligarch) hands and that the small farmers that were better represented by Anti-federalist (democrat) policies found it harder to organise. Nevertheless the numerical odds (80% / 2%) would have suggested an overwhelming Anti-federalist victory. Perhaps Americans simply found Federalist arguments more persuasive and were moved by republican convictions rather than blindly pursuing their own class interests.
Suggesting that Hamilton was in fact a British agent, Robbins asks ‘is there other evidence of an international conspiracy?’ (p.156), before introducing that hoary old suspect – the Freemasons. The overthrow of the ‘democratic’ Pennsylvania constitution is again down to a ‘powerful oligarchy’ (p.173). But why would the electors of Pennsylvania be duped into rejecting their own democratic arrangements in favour of something that was clearly not in their own interests? I’m not sure that people are quite as stupid as Robbins would imply — perhaps the original Pennsylvania constitution just didn’t work very well.
‘Paradise Regained’, the final section of the book (which will be of most interest to this forum) deals with Robbins’ own suggestions of how to recreate democracy in a modern age. Given his focus on persons (as opposed to the functional analysis of institutions), different systems of government are characterised by the number of people directly involved in the act of governing – ‘one’ in the case of monarchy, ‘a few’ in the case of oligarchy and ‘as many as possible’ in the case of democracy – ‘the more people who govern, the more democratic the government’ (p.107). ‘Remember, it’s a numbers game’ (pp.223-4). ‘The more the merrier’, one is tempted to add. This focus on participatory democracy leads Robbins to praise Hugo Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’ on the basis of the constitutional focus on poder ciudadano (citizen power), instituted via local Communal Councils. Without doubt these councils have led to a better distribution of bountiful oil revenues than would otherwise have been the case, but Chavez’s opponents have accused the President (soon to commence his fourth term of office – on completion he will have been in power continuously for 20 years) of seeking to transform a democracy into a dictatorship. The Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 is praised because it is very long and complicated and was approved by referendum, although he doesn’t claim that voters read its 350 articles (by this standard the UK, which has no written constitution at all, is completely beyond the pale). Even though the Venezuelan Constitution ‘substantially reduces and transfers many of the legislative branch’s powers to the presidency’ (p.406) he praises the removal of the upper house of the legislature. The removal of any constitutional limitation on ‘people power’ is, by definition, democratic – ignoring the ancient republican wisdom that the power of the king (elected or otherwise) needs to be held in check by equally powerful institutions. The easiest way for democracy to be subverted by a psychopath (Robbins’ main concern) is to remove such intermediating institutions.
The tyrant of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, instituted a government that was in theory perfectly democratic (Gaddafi’s The Green Book Part One: The Solution of the Problem of Democracy describes a structure of government where all rule originates in popular assemblies). As such it is more important to focus on how things work out in practice as opposed to constitutional formalities. He adopts such a realist approach to the US Constitution, contrasting the weak presidency intended by the founding fathers with de facto 21st-century executive rule. He applies altogether different standards to India, which Robbins idealises on the strength of ‘the government as it exists on paper’ (p.389). But Robbins is not really interested in pieces of paper, his concern is with the character of the people. What differentiates Indian and US democracy is Hindu collectivism (pp.390) as opposed to Papal absolutism (p.391) or Calvinist individualism. When India achieved independence it was an agrarian economy [so was the US]. ‘This way of life that Nehru condemned and Gandhi exalted was the foundation of India. I believe it still is’ (p.396). So if we want real democracy we all need to get looms and start weaving homespun. Unfortunately (as he acknowledges) one-fifth of the members of India’s parliament ‘have been accused of crimes, including embezzlement, rape and murder’ (p.401) and India is plagued with fratricidal violence and corruption (p.402).
So mass democracy doesn’t work, even in countries like India. Robbins’ proposal is to ‘do away with [elections] altogether’ (p.403) and set up a system of lotteries. His proposal here is modeled on a combination of the Porto Allegre participatory budgeting system with Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy (p.415). Barber’s proposal for a ‘national system of neighbourhood assemblies’ (each comprising 500 or more citizens) is scaled up via the city to the national level and Porto Allegre’s five ‘themes’ are extended, in Robbins’ model, to sixteen – from War and Peace and Foreign Affairs to Parks and Agriculture. There would be 3,200 districts and 16 themes, so that would mean over 25 million (randomly selected) citizens could be involved in government on a rotating basis. ‘Over a ten-year period the entire [US] adult population would have participated in the democratic process at least once’ (p.417).
But would they want to? If a citizen were allotted to, say, one of the 3,200 Foreign Affairs assemblies and each assembly had 500 members, then her influence on the final outcome would be 1: 1,600,000. In other words each vote is effectively worthless. Nowhere in the book does Robbins engage with the ‘rational ignorance’ argument – the reason voters fail to engage in the democratic process is because their influence on the outcome is negligible. Randomly-selected members of the Athenian council, courts and magistracies had very real power and citizens took it in turns to rule and be ruled – one quarter of all Athenian citizens could claim to have been president for the day (p.49). This is impossible in large modern states (Attica was roughly the size of Rhode Island [p.57]), hence the argument for sortition as a form of descriptive representation. Robbins, however, rules this out, as representation is anathema to him – ‘the object of democracy is the involvement in government of as many people as possible’ (p.417). The other problem is that the success of participatory budgeting in Porto Allegre was a product of a pre-existing strong civil society (p.415), not possible in a country where citizens are more accustomed to ‘bowling alone’.
This is where the other vector in the two-way exchange between institutions and character comes into play and here Robbins takes the side of J.S. Mill (who he earlier denounced as an ‘unrepentant oligarchic elitist’ [p.34]). ‘Government shapes character’ (p.3), so political participation is a valuable form of moral education for the citizens involved – ‘creating a human being who will not want to go to war’ (p.26). No one would argue with this, but a similar case could be made for voluntary involvement in a religious group, a sports club or the Boy Scouts. There may well be too many Americans ‘bowling alone’, but politics as psychotherapy is a dangerous game. Besides which, the evidence for a causal connection between democracy and peace is thin: according to Thucydides ‘the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon, made war inevitable’.
Despite my disagreement with Robbins’ thesis, the book is extremely well written and is warmly recommended to anyone with an interest in radical democracy. His analytic distinction (pp.187-191) between political democracy (PD), social democracy (SD), civic democracy (CD) and rhetorical democracy (RD) and his +– taxonomy of different forms of government on the basis of these distinctions should be of great use to scholars (an illustrative figure would have helped here). Liberal Democracy (LD) according to Robbins is an amalgam of RD and CD (p.213). Replacing the presidential spoils system with a ‘vetted’ lottery (p.380) is both sensible and workable, likewise his proposal that ‘those who administer should not govern’ (p.420). The book is beautifully produced (Smythe-sewn hardback) and carefully copy-edited but I found myself wishing that more editorial resources had been put into fact-checking and properly sourcing material re-tweeted from the internet. For example, Sir Josiah Stamp (p.296) was never head of the Bank of England and would have been highly unlikely to have been appointed a director a year after presenting a public speech [text unavailable] declaring the creation of money by banks to be an ‘iniquity’. 68,000 Google hits doesn’t prove anything – as recipients of libel writs from Lord McAlpine have found out to their cost. And Henry Ford’s trenchant views on the banking system (p.297) were just a by-product of his virulent anti-Semitism. Anyone without an army of researchers would be hard pressed to verify all his sources, especially when writing on a topic that falls outside his own area of professional expertise, so Robbins’ book should not be dismissed as an amateur polemic purely on the basis of a few unsourced citations. Nevertheless his overarching psychoanalytic perspective and the highly selective use of scholarly resources in key areas such as the American founding will make it harder for mainstream political historians to engage with his arguments (my original intention was to review it in a scholarly journal). The very notion of ‘the true meaning of democracy’ (the subtitle of the book) is distinctly unfashionable in the history of political thought, and philosophers would dismiss it as an example of the ‘genetic fallacy’. And that’s a shame, as it’s a book that is well worth reading.
PS All the chapters in Arthur’s book are headed with quotes from Milton’s Paradise Lost; my cultural references (Guns ‘N Roses) are more demotic!