Of the ideologies that contended over the fallen body of Christendom, there can be little doubt that liberal democracy has emerged triumphant. This, in itself, is surprising: liberal democracy, embodiment of the many in power, has been considered a weak and invertebrate system. Democrats, at all times, seem to be in a panic over the future of democracy.
Nevertheless, it was democracy that muscled aside the monarchies in the nineteenth century, and eradicated, root and branch, the totalitarian dictatorships of the twentieth. During this period of conflict, democracy managed to transform the human condition – not only materially, but in terms of education and quality of life. Evidently, the system has greater strength than credited. One source of strength can be traced to what Plato, a hostile witness, called democracy’s willingness to “pander” to the public.
From a certain perspective, liberal democracy appears in the guise of Christianity with a hole in its logic: that is, Christianity without eternity or a Last Judgment, ultimately without Christ. Humanitarian precepts are asserted and applauded, but never attached to any necessary cause. Universal rights are declared in many documents, but such rights exist independently of God, nature, reason, or any grounds for transcendental certainty. In fact, they are derived from political will: beneficiaries of universal rights demand to possess such rights, and demand further that they be considered universal. But there is nothing universal about political will. The confusion leaves the door open to arbitrary moral and political claims, and to a state that, on behalf of the many, usurps the power to define reality.
The Greek and Christian ways were predetermined by their understanding of the universal at a specific moment of history. Each began with coherent ideals that fell to pieces over the centuries, due to the seismic pressure of events.
Liberal democracy, in contrast, is a radically indeterminate system.
Under the banner of the sovereignty of the people, it can assume the terrible aspect of the many seeking, at any cost, to become one. The people’s sovereignty entails centralization, bureaucracy, the citizen-soldier, iron discipline, and a ruthlessness toward the enemy that could only be envied by monarchical states and was scarcely improved upon by the totalitarians. It was with cries of fraternité ringing in the air, and in the shadow of the guillotine, that the democratic state summoned the unity of will to overwhelm its rivals.
But the dramatic spectacle of democracy in heroic mode should not blind us to the master impulse of the system: the ambition to subjugate the one to the many. This inclination follows the logic of universal rights: a doctrine that repudiates, on principle, every obligation and discipline demanded by the state, and raises a protective shield behind which humanity can fracture along every conceivable divergence in identity.
Universal rights are individual rights. The one must somehow be collapsed into the many: specifically, the rigors of democratic solidarity are to be dissolved into personal freedom and a private morality. The state, shackled with checks and balances, is compelled to bow before the sovereignty of the individual. The citizen-soldier is first disarmed by a pseudo-Christian pacifism, then transformed into a unique vessel of identity and experience: a tourist in in the exotic bazaar of existence.
The ideal of perfection is superseded by that of toleration. Every manifestation of the universal is perceived as oppression or threat. The only permissible reality is a material world scrubbed clean of spirit and transcendence.
In this unprecedented migration of the human race away from the center – the one – to parts unknown, the effects of the system’s radical indeterminacy are revealed. We are headed to nowhere in particular, and to everywhere all at once.
Questions still arise about unifying principles, about metaphysical certainty, about the standard of morality and even of propriety and manners: but we have left such concerns far behind. Assertion of our common humanity matters less than the endless refinement of individual identity. Our ideals are private, contingent, subjective. Our encounters are therefore uneasy, and break down in recrimination. The temper of the age is a peevish anxiety. We feel incomplete, and we are certain that someone, somewhere, is to blame.