Paradise Lost, Paradise Found: The True Meaning of Democracy, by Arthur D. Robbins (Review)

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!

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4 Responses

  1. PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED: THE TRUE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY
    Response to Keith Sutherland’s Review
    Arthur D. Robbins

    I would like to thank Keith Sutherland for his comprehensive and thoughtful review of PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED: THE TRUE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY. Although I can sympathize with some of Mr. Sutherland’s objections based on difference of opinion, I believe there are some instances where his characterizations are distortions. I would like to take this opportunity to respond by offering what I believe to be a more balanced presentation of some of the themes that Mr. Sutherland has chosen to emphasize.

    Mr. Sutherland refers to my “overarching psychoanalytic perspective.” Though I am a psychologist by profession, I am not a psychoanalyst. There is an important distinction to be made between a “psychoanalytic perspective,” one consistent with basic Freudian tenets, and a “psychological perspective,” one that identifies human emotion as an important factor in the unfolding of historical events.

    If there is a psychological bias it is that I believe that people, neither institutions nor concepts, are the only actors on the stage we call history. Thus, if we want to understand history we need to understand it in terms of individual actors. If we want to redirect history we need to be thoughtful about the governmental structures we establish. For government is about the distribution of power amongst individual human beings. The way that power is distributed determines the way history unfolds.

    To put matters into perspective, PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED has twenty-seven chapters not including an introduction and conclusion. Only one of those chapters, Chapter 20, “The Pathology of Power,” twelve pages out of four hundred and forty-four, offers a sustained discussion of matters that might be considered “psychoanalytic.” I refer to Philip Slater’s book, “The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family” in which Slater identifies a contradiction in Greek men towards their female counterparts. In ancient Athens women were politically marginalized and often referred to with contempt. Yet in Greek mythology, women are powerful, sometimes frightening and dangerous, creatures. How are we to explain the difference? Slater argues that what appears in mythology is the mother from childhood who tyrannized and frightened her male child. He uses Alexander of Macedon as an example of someone who probably had such a terrifying, possibly sexually abusive mother, who then went on to vent his rage against this mother on any living creature who got in his way. I think this is an interesting insight. In no way is it central to the book I have written.

    Says Mr. Sutherland, “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. “ One can explain adult psychopathology in terms of childrearing without reducing history “to the psychiatrist’s couch.” The subject matter of the book is historical events, events that are understood in societal, not psychoanalytic terms.

    The opening chapter is not about psychopathology. It is about metahistory. It asks the question, “What is history and why does it matter?” This, rather than psychoanalysis, is one of the basic themes of the book. What is valid history? Are historians neutral as to the “facts” they present? What, in fact, is history? This is the level of discussion I start with and end with.

    Sutherland contends that “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.”

    George Washington I characterize as “cold-blooded and cruel,” “the first in a long line of mediocrities to become President of the United States.” Nothing psychoanalytic there. Hamilton I describe as, “hot-headed and ambitious … a shrewd political organizer who knew the game of power politics and played it well.” Nothing psychoanalytic there. Napoleon, I believe, was the first modern psychopath, (not a psychoanalytic term). He and others like him have chewed up human lives by the millions. Can we create a form of government that will deny such men the opportunity to continue with their depredation? I think that is a reasonable question to ask. I never referred to Genghis Kahn and his cohorts as psychopaths.

    “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). “

    “This can give rise to a rose-tinting of history.” I am not sure what the antecedent to “this” is so I am not clear why it will lead to a “rose-tinting of history.” It is not “rose-tinting” to say that not a brick was thrown nor a shot fired during the transition that led from the monarchical form of government under Louis XVI in June of 1789 to the constitutional oligarchy that followed it. The men who took the “tennis court oath” prevailed by virtue of quiet, unrelenting, thoughtful persistence. One can change from one form of government to another without violence. This is an important lesson we learn from an objective reading of history. What came after this peaceful transition was about power-hunger individuals shaping events to suit their personal needs, which often included violence.

    Another example of non-violent transition to a new form of government is the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1776. Again the work of a group of determined, well-disciplined men with a vision of how government could be set up on a more equitable, democratic basis. This is not “rose-tinting.” It is history, tout simple.

    Part II of PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED is an extended exploration of the events, ideas and documents that comprise that critical period in American history between the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the ratification of the Constitution in 1788. There is a detailed discussion of the debate between Federalists (those who were in favor of the Constitution) and the Anti-Federalists (those who were opposed). The fifty-five men who wrote the Constitution and created a new form of government had no legal authority to do so. They did so hastily and in absolute secrecy. Benjamin Franklin was supplied with a chaperon lest he babble after a few glasses of wine.

    America in 1776 was an agrarian society. Between eighty to ninety percent of the population were small farmers. As Charles Beard points out in his “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States,” the fifty-five men who wrote the Constitution were landed gentry, lawyers, merchants, and speculators. Not a small farmer to be found. An abrupt change in government, in the absence of legal authority, engineered under the veil of secrecy, to the exclusion of the vast majority of the citizenry is what is known as a coup d’etat. This is not “an outmoded conspiracy theory of history,” as Sutherland claims. It is conspiracy in fact.

    Mr. Sutherland wonders why it is that, “Robbins fails to explain exactly how it was possible that a tiny group of oligarchs were able to impose their views on everybody else.” Such wonderment can only be disingenuous when considered in the light of western history over the past two hundred years. How come a handful of men control the United States, the United Kingdom, France, etc.? Pick your country. The answer is that oligarchs have the ability to get together in a small gathering, organize and plot the means for getting power and holding on to it, while the rest of go about our business. It has always been easy for the calculating few to hoodwink the unsuspecting many.

    Once the Constitution was written, it had to be ratified by the state legislatures. At the outset seven of the thirteen states were opposed to ratification. There was no groundswell in favor of overthrowing the legal authority of the democratically inclined Articles of Confederation in favor of a highly centralized oligarchy. The Constitution was forced through by means of time pressure, lying, mail tampering, physical violence and destruction of ballots. Without these tactics, as men like Alexander Hamilton understood, the Constitution would not have been adopted.

    James Madison understood the importance of numbers. He knew that one could undermine democratic tendencies by organizing power remotely and in relatively small numbers as a means of defeating the wishes of the rest of the citizenry. When he discusses possible forms of government in the “Federalist Papers” he does so as an opponent of democracy and an advocate for the form of oligarchic government that would protect his propertied interests.

    I see no basis for Sutherland’s contention that “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).” The fact that Madison was a member of the landed aristocracy, was passionately devoted to oligarchy and virulently opposed to democracy would seem to speak for itself. By what parapsychological means does Keith know what “Madison genuinely believed?”

    Part IV of PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED is entitled, “Paradise Regained: Democracy in the Modern Age.” There is an extended discussion of India since Gandhi with an emphasis on the communal social structure that so favors a democratic form of governance. ‘This way of life that Nehru condemned and Gandhi exalted was the foundation of India. I believe it still is,” say I on p.396. To which Sutherland replies, “So if we want real democracy we all need to get looms and start weaving homespun.”

    Such talk reveals a stunning disconnect from the way seventy-five percent or more of the world’s population live, as well as a troubling ignorance of what we westerners need to change if it is our intention to survive on this planet. We need to catch up with our “backwards” neighbors to the east and around the world. I recommend that Mr. Sutherland read, Vandana Shiva’s “Earth Democracy” and “Sowing Seeds in the Desert” by Masanobu Fukuoka. Both books are encomiums to the seed and demonstrate with lyricism and eloquence the critical role to be played by the seed in the survival of civilization.

    In Chapter 27, the constitution of Venezuela is studied in some detail, though it is not “praised because it is very long and complicated,” as Sutherland suggests. It is praised for its democratic content. For example, the Constitution is written in gender-neutral language. Every time it refers to an officer holder or government actor, both feminine and masculine titles are applied (“presidente” and “presidenta”). It holds that the government is not only subject to the law but also is obligated to satisfy the demands of social justice. Not only are civil rights recognized but also the rights to employment, housing, and healthcare.

    The Venezuelan Constitution also specifically acknowledges the value of the mother and homemaker: “The state recognizes work at home as an economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth. Homemakers are entitled to Social Security in accordance with law.”

    In addition, the Constitution itemizes four kinds of referenda: consultative, recall, approving, and rescinding. Each has its own particular requirements for implementation. The Constitution also makes indirect reference to the limitations of representative government: “Participation is not limited to electoral policies, since the need for the intervention of the people is recognized in the processes of formation, formulation and execution of public policy.” The state is mandated to protect the environment, biological diversity, genetic resources, ecological processes, and national parks.

    It is quite true, as Sutherland observes and as I remark on page 410, Chavez’s government is veering towards monarchy. This, I believe, is one of the primary disadvantages of state socialism. It leads to the centralization and concentration of power in the hands of a few. It is the antithesis of political democracy.

    In the last chapter of PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED I speculate as to what it would be like to transform the United States into a citizen-state where millions were involved in the legislative process on a national level. Say I, on page 417, “Over a ten-year period the entire [US] adult population would have participated in the democratic process at least once.” Sutherland replies, “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.”

    This issue of “rational ignorance” has come up on these pages before. It is a favorite theme of Mr. Sutherland’s, though it is irrelevant to my understanding of the true meaning of democracy. Democracy is not principally about the vote in which “her influence on the final outcome would be 1: 1,600,000.” It is about the debate, the democratic process, which precedes the vote. It is about people expressing their beliefs, disagreeing, learning and often coming to a form of consensus in which the vote is an afterthought. It is the discussion before the vote that transforms the individual and potentially a society. Says Sutherland, “politics as psychotherapy is a dangerous game.” I can’t for the life of me see why.

    I praise the Venezuelan constitution for being unicameral and thus eliminating the more elitist senate as a check to democratic expression. To which Sutherland replies, “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. “

    I am not sure what the source of “ancient republican wisdom” is, nor can I in any way understand what the “the power of the king” has to do with democratic governance.

    Sutherland concludes his review as follows. I have divided his conclusion into sections.

    1) “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 …

    ADR: Although I don’t see myself as a google geek, I do use google from time to time for historical reference on routine matters. If there are errors other than the single example noted by Mr. Sutherland, if he will inform me, I would be happy to make the corrections.

    Mr. Sutherland, if “Sir Josiah Stamp (p.296) was never head of the Bank of England,” who was, and what is your source?

    2) “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.

    ADR: This is a patronizing and unfounded observation. If “Robbins’ book should not be dismissed as an amateur polemic purely on the basis of a few unsourced citations” then why does Sutherland raise the issue, if not to engage in the very act of dismissal that he claims to eschew?

    Readers of this blog should be aware that in PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED there are hundreds of footnotes and endnotes and a bibliography of some two hundred sources cited. I am scrupulous in offering references for just about anything I say and never rely on the internet to supply critical opinion or information of substance.

    In passing, Mr. Sutherland raises an interesting issue when he pleads with his readers not be too hard on poor Robbins for “writing on a topic that falls outside his own area of professional expertise.”

    Academic institutions are cozy with power. Academicians have legitimate concerns about advancement through publishing and will often be reluctant to say anything too startling lest their career standing be put in jeopardy. Are such experts necessarily our best resource in understanding critical concepts like democracy, concepts which honestly portrayed might threaten the institutional security which the academic covets or might not it make more sense to turn to the amateur who is guided more by his interest in the subject matter than the need to please or flatter his peers?

    3) “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. “

    ADR: The issue of selection of resources is a critical one. In Chapter 1, “What is history and why does it matter?” I make the observation that history has a rhetorical function to play, that history as written in some way expresses the preferences and prejudices of the person who writes it. I believe that there are no exceptions. When Mr. Sutherland refers to my “highly selective use of scholarly resources” I assume what he means to say is that he disagrees with and disapproves of my selection. If I had a different point to make I would choose a different set of resources. His observation is gratuitous.

    There is nothing fringe or skewed about the authors I have chosen to portray the critical period in American history between 1776 and 1788. Jackson Turner Main, “The Anti-Federalists: Critics of the Constitution, 1781-1788,” Woody Holton, “Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution,” Joshua Miller, “The Rise and Fall of Democracy in Early America,” Andrew Shankman, “The Crucible of American Democracy” are all credentialed historians of good repute. Their views would be respected in any discussion of this period in American history.

    4) 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’.

    My primary interest in writing a work like PARADISE LOST, PARADISE REGAINED was to provide the reader with a work of intellectual integrity, thoughtful originality and probing honesty. Fashion does not enter into the equation nor should it for me or anyone else who is interested in producing a book of merit and social value.

    I am not sure that a straight thinking philosopher would dismiss my book for tracing the meaning of democracy to ancient Athens in the fifth century. The attempt to define a word by placing it in its historical context is unlikely to evoke the charge of genetic fallacy. One (google) definition says, “The genetic fallacy is committed when an idea is either accepted or rejected because of its source, rather than its merit.” I am not saying that democracy is a good thing because ancient Athenians practiced it. I am saying that democracy is what ancient Athenians practiced. It is the name they gave to the government they lived under.

    There is no good reason to take a word like democracy with its valid historical meaning and apply it to a situation where it clearly doesn’t apply when there is a word available that does apply. Where one voice speaks for six hundred thousand souls, as is the case in the United States, such a government is clearly not a democracy. It is by definition an oligarchy. To apply the more popular word where it doesn’t belong is, as Mr. Sutherland has said on these pages, a confidence game.

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  2. Arthur,

    Many thanks for the clarification and apologies for confusing clinical psychology and psychoanalysis. The distinction that I’m trying to make is between structures and persons — as a sociologist my interest is primarily the former; as a psychologist your interest is the latter. The quote from Acton nicely illustrates this distinction:

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men . . .” (p.300)

    I focus on the first sentence, you on the second. It’s not entirely clear without reading the whole piece whether Acton is arguing that great men started off as bad men or whether power has made them bad (the first sentence would suggest the latter interpretation). Your book appears to take the essentialist interpretation of the second sentence: “[bad] people corrupt power” (ibid.), so the important thing (to you) is to limit the possible tenure of such people. I think you’ve probably misunderstood Acton’s argument (as he would be unlikely to contradict himself in two consecutive sentences) but the precautionary principle would be that anyone is capable of corruption (even those “from a wholesome family background” (ibid)), hence the job of the political scientist is to construct political institutions that work with the crooked timber of humanity. This was Madison’s intention and you don’t need to be a parapsychologist to divine his views, just a little less cynical (Howe, 1988). I don’t doubt the eminence of the historians you have cited on the American foundation, it’s just that you’ve ignored most of what has been written in the last few decades. See, for example (Wood, 1969).

    >How come a handful of men control the United States, the United Kingdom, France, etc.? Pick your country. The answer is that oligarchs have the ability to get together in a small gathering, organize and plot the means for getting power and holding on to it, while the rest of go about our business. It has always been easy for the calculating few to hoodwink the unsuspecting many. . . The Constitution was forced through by means of time pressure, lying, mail tampering, physical violence and destruction of ballots.

    I can understand that your focus on a personality type (the “oligarch”) would lead you to endorse this kind of conspiracy theory. Political scientists attribute it entirely to the “principle of distinction”, inherent in the electoral process — this has nothing to do with personality or interests, it’s merely a function of preference election. Manin (1997) is the best source. You have to admit that the odds (80 : 2) are stacked heavily against you when it comes to your chosen explanation. This is the reason that Beard’s book is rarely read by students of the American founding.

    >Democracy is not principally about the vote in which “her influence on the final outcome would be 1: 1,600,000.” It is about the debate, the democratic process, which precedes the vote. It is about people expressing their beliefs, disagreeing, learning and often coming to a form of consensus in which the vote is an afterthought.

    Sure, but nobody is going to bother to show up for the debate if they know that the causal power of their vote is negligible. Politics is pretty boring so most people would rather watch TV and vote on the X-Factor. The theory of rational ignorance is simply acknowledging this. If this were not the case then there would be no need for sortition because we would all rush to the assembly and eagerly do our civic duty. Rousseau realised, sadly, that this was all the stuff of cloud-cuckoo land and ended his life in despair. I think we need to get real if we don’t want to suffer the same fate.

    The “ancient republican wisdom” is standard Aristotle/Polybius, see for example Hansen (2010).

    As for the “true meaning of democracy” it changed its meaning over three centuries in Athens and has continued to change ever since. I’m all for re-visiting direct and sortive democracy, but we have to accept that differences of scale will mean that Athenian democracy can never be simply reincarnated (for the numerical reasons cited above).

    Refs
    ===

    Hansen, Mogens Herman (2010), ‘The Mixed Constitution Versus the Separation of Powers: Monarchical and Aristocratic Aspects of Modern Democracy’, History of Political Thought, XXXI, pp. 509-532.

    Howe, Daniel Walker (1988), ‘The Language of Faculty Psychology in The Federalist Papers’, in T. Ball and J.G.A. Pocock, ed, Conceptual Change and the Constitution, pp. 107-136 (University Press of Kansas).

    Manin, Bernard (1997), Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge University Press).

    Wood, Gordon S. (1969), The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (University of North Carolina Press).

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  3. >The distinction that I’m trying to make is between structures and persons — as a sociologist my interest is primarily the former; as a psychologist your interest is the latter. The quote from Acton nicely illustrates this distinction:
    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” (p.300)
    I focus on the first sentence, you on the second. It’s not entirely clear without reading the whole piece whether Acton is arguing that great men started off as bad men or whether power has made them bad (the first sentence would suggest the latter interpretation). Your book appears to take the essentialist interpretation of the second sentence: “[bad] people corrupt power” (ibid.), so the important thing (to you) is to limit the possible tenure of such people. I think you’ve probably misunderstood Acton’s argument (as he would be unlikely to contradict himself in two consecutive sentences) but the precautionary principle would be that anyone is capable of corruption (even those “from a wholesome family background” (ibid.)), hence the job of the political scientist is to construct political institutions that work with the crooked timber of humanity.

    Keith,
    To me, it doesn’t really matter what Acton meant; we can certainly read that second sentence (taken in isolation, if you want) as “it is almost always bad men who rise to be great men”. The reasoning behind this interpretation lies with recent developments in the field of Psychology (a science that barely existed as such in Acton’s time). We know now for a fact that around 1% of the population cannot feel empathy towards fellow human beings (or other live creatures for that matter). These people are technically called CU (for callous-unemotional), thus avoiding the more loaded words otherwise used to refer to them, like psychopaths or sociopaths. Unfortunately for the rest of us, most if not all CUs learn naturally since their very early childhood to compensate this lack of social emotions by observing, detecting, analysing and mimicking the sincere emotions in other children, thus becoming consummate masters in the art of lying, deceiving and manipulating their inadvertent victims. This set of skills puts them at a distinct advantage in any kind of quest for power. Your final reference to “the crooked timber of humanity” might well had referred to the fact that 1% of those walking among us are not like us, “hence the job of the political scientist is to construct political institutions that” ensure a diluted CU of no more than 1%, instead of the much more condensed CU that will inevitably arise if this fact of life is not duly taken into account.
    I thought this comment could be added to this older thread; the current discussion (which has diverged considerably from the original direction intended for that post) goes at: https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/the-representativity-of-a-random-sample-the-need-for-mandatory-participation/#comment-17678

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  4. Arturo,

    >Your final reference to “the crooked timber of humanity” might well had referred to the fact that 1% of those walking among us are not like us

    That is certainly not what Kant meant, he was referring to the human condition.

    >To me, it doesn’t really matter what Acton meant

    Yes, that’s just the problem!

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