MAJORITY RULES. We simply take it for granted that what the most want, the most get. Whether it be the evening’s choice of Netflix viewing, or the allocation of parliamentary seats, the will of the majority prevails.
The alternative to majority rule – minority rule – is dismissed out of hand. The idea of a small number of people determining the future of a much greater number of people is simply unacceptable. Democracy, in its essence, is all about the numbers: who has them; and who does not.
Most people are surprised to learn how recently this idea: that the greatest say rightly belongs to the greatest number; took root in human societies. While it is most unlikely that nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers would’ve followed a course of action to which most of its members were opposed, for most of the last 10,000 years the preferences of the majority haven’t amounted to a hill of skulls. Indeed, it is possible to argue that civilisation and oppression go hand-in-hand.
Even the shining example of Ancient Athens – the supposed birthplace of Democracy – was predicated on the political exclusion of women and slaves. Only about a third of the great city-state’s adult population were actually permitted to participate in its government. The man who could convince slightly more than half of Athens’ active citizenry to adopt his policies had a fair chance of seeing them enacted. In order to prevail, however, he only needed to sway roughly one-sixth of Athens’ population. Not really a majority. Not really a democracy.
It was, however, a great improvement on the chiefly, monarchical, and imperial political systems that prevailed across most of our planet for all but three of the past one hundred centuries. While it is true that chiefs felt obliged to give heed to the tribe’s most fearless warriors and its best hunters; and that Kings and Emperors could not afford to ignore the wishes of their most powerful nobles; the idea that humble farmers and craftsmen had as much right to a say in things as the Lord in his manor and his heavily-armed knights, would have struck the latter as both ridiculous and dangerous.
In this belief, political rulers have always been strongly supported by their religious counterparts. God (or the Gods) had a strange way of replicating in the sphere of the spirit the same pyramidal hierarchies that characterised the material realm.
The road to destruction, it seems, is broad enough to accommodate the overwhelming majority of humankind. “Straight is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto life,” said Jesus, “and few there be that find it.” Certainly, the overwhelming majority of the cast of the very scary Book of Revelation end up in the fiery lake. It would seem that Heaven, like the very best country clubs, takes some getting into.
And yet, all those despised masses, all those damned sinners, remained unwaveringly receptive to the idea that they, too, had a role to play in the drama of human existence. That the Majority is neither to be despised nor damned.
Perhaps the greatest burden in that struggle to play a role and have a say fell upon the shoulders of women. For those who hold up half the sky constitute the most enduring majority of them all. Indeed, as Athens proved, if women have no say, then you do not have a Democracy. In the words of that indefatigable Suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst:
“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”
In an era when it is common to hear “leftists” dismiss Democracy contemptuously as “the tyranny of the majority”: and where it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Majority, far from being, by democratic convention, always in the right; is, in the eyes of many of today’s fanatically self-righteous politicians, always in the wrong; then we would do well to dwell upon Emmeline’s words.
For although “bigot” may have replaced the word “sinner”, and “redneck” the word “serf”, it remains an inescapable truth that if the goal is to free the human race, then all of the human race – male, female, black, white, gay and straight – must be freed.
Knowing what freedom is, determining what freedom does, and receiving its blessings in proportion to their numbers.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 January 2022.
Leftists might dismiss democracy as the tyranny of the majority, although I've never heard anyone say it – but rightists are dismissing democracy altogether. In favour of a pseudo-democracy where certain groups are excluded from the vote, and the country is run by a strongman. If you frequent American blogs you will often come across a sentence which goes something like "the USA is not a democracy, it's a constitutional republic." These are probably the same people who now claim that Martin Luther King was right wing, and the American election was rigged. And in my view they are far more dangerous than a few intellectual leftists. They seem to be happy with violence as a political technique for a start. And of course all this has been facilitated by the stupidity of social media which allows free reign for eejits. I never thought I'd live in a country for instance where scientists are doxxed and receive death/rape threats for explaining science. I don't think we actually appreciate the extent of this dangerous trend quite yet. Still, it's all free speech right?
Education is said to be the answer to a beter society - but what and to whom and when? Whole life learning was being touted all the time a while ago. But that seems to have become a sidelined prescription, which seemed to apply particularly to those seeking employment. One should rush off and learn some new skill to match the requirements of the New Industrial Age that didn't have any industry. The sort of education that enables people to understand what you are talking about Chris is absent.
And it is hard to get many teenagers to reflect, concentrate and produce individual thought. I spent a class period in a secondary school library where the English teacher was exposing the class to the vast array of written material which they could dip into and write a review about their choice that afternoon. One boy just looked at coloured pictures in a motor magazine making brrm brrm noises. Others huddled and seemed to be discussing their social life, and one separated, who I was to try and help towards him writing about a recent holiday, spent all his time looking across at the others wistfully.
I think Tto get individual thinking and ideas about human society and the world, enabling rational decisions by those in a democracy we need I think, an early start. There is plenty of original thinking going on at seven and eight. Television etc has deadened the mind or channelled it, by teenage, and the adult majority, now have given up learning, and make decisions on feelings and personal preferences. Many never read fiction so have no precedent for using imagination. I don't think film uses imagination as a book does; to compare with food, film is a prepared dish, and a book has the ingredients laid out, partly prepared and mixed, but needing the reader's skills and devoted interest.
I'm no fan of Fritz Hayek, but his description of modern democracy does strike a chord with me. Sort of. He called democracy 'a dictatorship by temporary majorities'. OK, we can mull over what constitute this 'majority', as, in my view, the bulk of the electorate isn't really represented by the people they vote into office. Consider US policy, domestic and foreign. To what extent does either represent the 'will of the majority'? I'd argue, not a whit.
My reading of history indicates that the more 'liberal' (small 'l') the political system, the more liable it is to hijacking. Athenian democracy became within a short time hostage to populism and demagoguery. You should read the comedies of Aristophanes on this (many with anti-war themes). True, Aristophanes would not have been a fan of democracy in principle, and would simply have pointed to the likes of Cleon and Alcibiades as arguments to support his view, but maybe hoped through his plays to persuade demonstrate to his audience the bloody-minded follies of Athenian leadership in the face of looming disaster (apart from that, even after 2500 years, Aristophanes is damnably relevant, as well as funny!).
The Roman Republic - no democracy, but having certain features I would call 'liberal' (small 'l' again) - also became subject to populist leaders, and violent and bloody bids for personal power. One almost gets the sense that Rome became an autocracy in an attempt to avoid becoming an autocracy.
'It is not the voter who counts,' quoth Joe Stalin, 'but who counts the votes.'
Ain't THAT the truth!
Ion A. Dowman
My wish list to make democracy more functional would be to rework New Zealand electoral laws
to make voting compulsory, however to also include the choice of 'opting out' of either or both the electoral or party vote
This would mean elections would show a better strength of mandate to govern rather than just a show of numbers.
Yes I remember Frogblog "tyranny of the majority".
I also remember Keith Locke's "anti-immigration sentiment has no place in the Green Party" and Jack Tame is using that exact phrase on Q&A.
Which is why this bloated, affluent, narcissistic Woke cult is inherently elitist, self-interested, anti-democratic & thus [despite their aggressive self-promotion to the contrary] deeply reactionary. Users & Abusers ... particularly of low / low-middle 'outgroups' - traditionally the core constituency of Left parties. These ruthless calculating little dogmatists - always voluntering other people (older, poorer) to do the suffering ... are the antithesis of the Left I was brought up with.
"My reading of history indicates that the more 'liberal' (small 'l') the political system, the more liable it is to hijacking."
Then you haven't looked at American democracy very closely have you? Much of it has been hijacked by allowing almost unlimited spending on elections, by the appointment of partisan judges, by the lack of a nonpartisan body for setting electoral boundaries leading to gerrymandering, and of course by making voting more difficult in areas occupied by minorities. By contrast, although New Zealand MPs don't necessarily make a great job of representing their constituents, they certainly do a better job than most Americans. You just have to look at the example of Sinema and Manchin – the first in particular, who has gone against the majority of her constituents' wishes basically in return for money. The US is full of examples where the majority of people are in favour of something according to the polls, yet there is no chance of ever coming to pass – gun control for instance. Personally I think – with some caveats – that the liberality of a democracy doesn't necessarily make a great deal of difference to the ease of subversion. I used to think that the checks and balances of the American system would mitigate any tendency to authoritarianism, but I've lost confidence in those. I think the key is keeping large amounts of money out of the electoral system. It might make democracy more secure and at the very least it couldn't hurt.
Chris, I know you were closely involved in Sukhi Turner's successful 1995 Dunedin mayoral campaign. The southern establishment was taken back to see that a coalesces of minority groups actually formed a majority. A lesson for processive politics.
Archduke Piccolo: Aristophanes held a mirror up to his audience, bedbugs and all, while exposing the absurd side of politicians and philosophers alike with preposterous settings and plots, warning of the dangers of subversion both by demagoguery and quackery. His plays are also incredibly funny at the same time.
New Zealand's democracy has been subverted twice in my lifetime. The first time was the introduction of Rogernomics through 1984-87 without the foreknowledge or agreement of the majority of the electorate. That government exploited a crisis well beyond the extent of the reforms to the economy that were necessary and irrevocably damaged New Zealand's social fabric.
The second subversion is underway now with the introduction by stealth of the radical ethnonationalist vision of He PuaPua, of which absolutely no mention was made before the 2020 election. This agenda, which is being driven by an authoritarian minority, has the goal of extinguishing New Zealand's democracy. Aristophanes would have urgently and loudly warned his public of the dangerous lunacy of this enterprise. His play on this subject could well have been set in and titled after his beloved "Cloud Cuckoo Land" ("Nephelokokkugi"). Cloud Cuckoo Land and Aotearoa have a lot in common.
I'm not a fan of compulsory voting Edward.
One of the most important aspects of democracy is the acceptance of the will of the majority by A/people that voted for the losing side and B/ by the people that chose, not to vote.
Perhaps people choose not to vote because they don't feel sufficiently informed but there's an element of respect for the wisdom of your fellow citizens in that decision. Perhaps there's a lot of straight out nihilism involved, perhaps I'm hopelessly ennobling the thing but it's not a bad way to look at it.
David George - for the sake of democratic freedom you are not in favor of compulsory voting, but what about a universally compulsory savings rate for the sake of personal and national wealth ownership creation, old age and child poverty abolition and easier sustainability of better welfare security ?
Would that not lead towards the ultimate in more egalitarian democracy and capitalism ?
On a related issue, the current liberal obsession with having social policy decided by court-decision is truly disturbing. Elected representatives are flawed, of course, but you can vote them out if you don't like them. You can't vote out judges.
It is all very well to say "these are matters of individual rights. They shouldn't be subject to vote." Problem there is, there is still a vote - it's just the judges doing the voting. It takes power away from the majority, and gives them to Plato's Philosopher Kings... hardly a leftist position.
What Isaiah Berlins said
Thanks Jens, not sure that compulsory savings is a great idea, for some people maybe and there is the semi compulsory Kiwisaver in place already. Perhaps some incentivisation would be good though, I don't think it's reasonable that people should be taxed on the inflation component of interest payments for example.
Our economy relies, to a surprisingly large extent, on people doing their own thing with their own resources and saved surpluses and profits. I don't think we should be overly draconian with the underground economy either, a lot of great businesses started out on a small, under the radar way.
Liberal economic policies are a great wealth creator and, perhaps more importantly, and here I think we both agree, provide a counter to excess government (and corporate?) power - the economically free are free in other ways. A bit of "fuck you" money is a great thing. I'm not bothered by the degree of economic inequality we have in NZ but you wouldn't want to see it getting out of hand. Inequality is not proof of justice or injustice - it's way more complicated than that.
Yankland took your views (apparently) well in hand with their thunderously oligarchic constitution. Elsewhere, majority rule somehow is better for minorities, at least in good economic times. Along with the free exchange of ideas. I likes democracy.
Guerilla, cut and dry and say clearer about the overthrow of democracy going on in America. We are smudgey about it now that interest in ideas and politics has died to little in the age of diversion.
I'm pissed at the Left lack of clarity here in NZ about the wider world. So much not seeing the woods for the trees.
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