I Don’t Know Whether This Point Needs to be Belabored …

by Henry Farrell on May 21, 2014

but David Brooks apparently doesn’t know what ‘democracy’ means.

The quickest way around all this is to use elite Simpson-Bowles-type commissions to push populist reforms.

The process of change would be unapologetically elitist. Gather small groups of the great and the good together to hammer out bipartisan reforms — on immigration, entitlement reform, a social mobility agenda, etc. — and then rally establishment opinion to browbeat the plans through. But the substance would be anything but elitist. Democracy’s great advantage over autocratic states is that information and change flow more freely from the bottom up. Those with local knowledge have more responsibility.

If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage: which push control over poverty programs to local charities; which push educational diversity through charter schools; which introduce more market mechanisms into public provision of, say, health care, to spread power to consumers.

So if I understand Brooks right, we have elite commissions “of the great and the good” pushing ‘populist reforms’ from on high, where ‘populist’ is apparently a specialized term of art for ‘shit that technocrats really love.’ And the ‘democratic’ elements at the bottom consist of:

* Poverty programs that have been turned over from the public sector to charities.
* Education, which has been turned over from the public sector to charter schools.
* Healthcare, which has been turned over even further to the market.

If this is an argument for ‘democracy,’ it’s a deeply weird and contorted one. At the heart of the confusion – and I suspect that this is a real and profound confusion, not a deliberate obfuscation – is an elision of the concepts of democracy and “local knowledge.” Brooks’ ideal society seems to be a chimeric offspring of Plato and Hayek. Commissions of aristocrats (who really do know better) hammer out grand social reforms. The specifics of implementation are left to those with local knowledge, who can best decide how to do things given the particulars.

In this grand scheme, there’s no democracy, either at the top nor the bottom. The grand commissions at the top are designed not to be accountable. And at the bottom, Brook’s proposals for charities, charter schools and market-driven healthcare all look to carve large areas of public activity out of public control.

You can make a case for some of this (e.g. charter schools) if you like, based on the expansion of choice, but you aren’t making an argument for democratic choice, which is all about collective control of destiny through argument and voting. More specifically, you can argue that democratic choice is not the appropriate form of choice for a particular social activity, or that democratic choice is both effectively absent and unachievable for that activity, and hence that some other form of choice ought to be instituted. You may even be right – but you are not making an argument for greater democracy, and you shouldn’t pretend to yourself and your readers that you are.

More generally, if you’re using rewarmed Hayek as the basis for your arguments about how democracy should be revitalized, you’re starting off from the wrong place. Hayek’s enthusiasm for democracy is at best contingent. There are theorists (like James Scott) who do want to combine local knowledge with democracy, but they start in a very different place than Brooks does, and want to end up in a very different place too.

So in short, Brooks’ argument for how democracies ought to compete with (purportedly more efficient) non-democracies is that they should become less democratic themselves. Or maybe, it’s that the secret advantage of democracies can be found in their non-democratic elements. It’s a point of view, certainly, but one which ought to be stated clearly and directly, rather than cloaked in the fiction that e.g. turning over poverty programs to private charity somehow adds a ‘democratic’ gloss to your grand bipartisan commissions. There’s a strong technocratic strain in Anglo-American thought which wants to push back against democracy, on the right (Brooks), among liberal-to-centrists (e.g. this Alan Blinder piece) and the left (the late Tony Judt). But few technocrats are willing to come out and describe themselves as actually anti-democratic, even if that’s where their ideas very obviously are leading them.



Bruce Wilder 05.21.14 at 7:00 am

“. . . all look to carve large areas of public activity out of public control.”

And, to create opportunities for private profit — let’s not forget the juicy part.

r > g


shah8 05.21.14 at 7:10 am

When I read about this after I got up for the day, I mostly just thought that, rather than contributing some new ideal, what David Brooks is actually doing is lamenting that the days of the policy initiative as he has outlined are gone. Talk up an emergency, deny regular due process (or speed it up unsafely, and argue from authority with however much fig leaves required. David Brooks certainly does not have in mind any sort of effectual resolutions wrt global warming. No catfood commissions for petro companies!

To me, a good example is the Oregon Pay It Forward Initiative that got talked up everywhere around this time last year. It got dressed up in liberal clothes, credited to an at least nominally liberal organization (Oregon Working Families Party), and there were votes and commissions…The thing though, was that the purpose of such a blitz was to undermine the energy for other referendum efforts that focused on forcing Oregon to raise taxes so as to support higher education better. If Pay It Forward keeps momentum through passage, it probably would represent a huge shoving of risks onto college students, since it was more or less a backdoor privatization of the state university system.

There are other, less ambitious (but still awful)gambits, like the use of eminent domain to restructure mortgage as advocated by Mortgage Resolution Partners–state effectively acts as MRP’s partner in gifting them with mortgages at pennies to the dollar, at the original lender’s expense. Plenty of snazzy websites, lots of talk about evil bankers and populism good! But they don’t want the title to your house, no sirree! Just that mortgage!

These projects have gotten off the ground much slower than they used to, in the glory days of Alan Greenspan’s era in the ’90s and early aughts. Time was, you could get people to go for a lottery, just like that! NAFTA could be managed, and the fringe of the folks at Seattle WTO protest are put as the driver of all opposition. Today, it’s a lot harder for people to use Jenny McCarthy as a tu quoque when leftist dissent about how technology is handled pops up. We’ve heard it all before. We remember when charter schools had some genuine leftist support, or that we used to think Ross Perot was pretty cool, instead of a paranoid, controlling, creep.

David Brooks misses the younger, less cynical version of us. He definitely misses the version of us that could buy into the “both sides do it frame”, or that conservatives could be at all honest–about anything. Technocracy has been losing legitimacy, and Brooks is very concerned.


StevenAttewell 05.21.14 at 7:24 am

you aren’t making an argument for democratic choice, which is all about collective control of destiny through argument and voting.

Very true, but I think this also points to the general tendency, especially prominent in the U.S, to confuse small l-liberalism, which tends to focus on the individual voter’s sacrosanctly-private rationally-derived decision-making, with democracy, the collective excercise in power.

In other words, one vote never matters. It’s not supposed to – a million votes matter. So get out and organize them.


Paul Montgomery 05.21.14 at 8:14 am

My question is why you all keep thinking what David Brooks says is worth arguing about.


bad Jim 05.21.14 at 8:31 am

“If the Guardian State’s big advantage is speed at the top, democracy’s is speed at the bottom. So, obviously, the elite commissions should push proposals that magnify that advantage”

Wait, what? Our advantage is combining the speed of authoritarian decision-making with the efficiency of local execution? Is this something he picked up at the salad bar at Applebee’s? This was so bad even Charles Pierce disdained to make fun of it. This is the sort of thing that makes one ask about the color of the sky of the other’s home planet.


bad Jim 05.21.14 at 8:45 am

I’m going to repeat an old rant.

For many years I’ve been a supporter of the local homeless shelter, and nodded along in approval with the sentiment that this was in some sense a better, less self-aggrandizing sort of charity than supporting the arts or my alma mater. In the aftermath of Katrina, after hearing Bush proclaim that private efforts were the most appropriate way to handle the situation, I came to a different conclusion: this ought to be regarded as a public responsibility, best funded by taxes.

Charity ought to be frivolous, mere vanity, not something desperate people have to depend on. Nevertheless, I continue to tithe, because we’re a long way from being a just society.


Harald K 05.21.14 at 9:14 am

In other words, one vote never matters. It’s not supposed to – a million votes matter. So get out and organize them.

In which case a million votes don’t matter either, but having the best “organizers” matters.

Brooks may not understand democracy, but it seems even most academics think democracy is defined by institutions like free speech and elections, and not in genuinely equal influence on collective decisions.


Jesús Couto Fandiño 05.21.14 at 10:51 am

So, if I got this straight, the point can be summarized as “We need elitists, top-down reforms that push for the kind of supposedly democratic reforms that are in reality just more neoliberal bullshit, lest some real bottom-up reform comes and implement something actual people want”


Cheryl Rofer 05.21.14 at 11:01 am

Perhaps off topic, but I find his usage of “Guardian State” ominous in that it is close to some rightwing formulations against anything that has any aspect of helping people. So it will be easy to transfer, with the overtones he is attaching to it, to any initiative to use government to make people’s lives better.

A bigger and better version of the “socialist” and other tags now in use.


Ebenezer Scrooge 05.21.14 at 11:01 am

@bad Jim:
Even if we were a just society, you might want to continue tithing. I think we can all agree that democracy is slow, and state actions are seldom nimble, except in times of war. (This is a feature, not a bug!) Charity has the potential for some speed and flexibility. Charity can be a great R&D lab for emerging justice; the state is potentially better at institutionalized justice.
Of course, much of “charity” is simple social positioning by those with social position. I wonder how much money I would have to contribute to Dear Old Alma Mater in order to have my name inscribed on every urinal. Probably much more than I would need to get my name on a football stadium.


bob mcmanus 05.21.14 at 11:15 am

Rick Falkinge Swarmwise

A swarm organization is a decentralized, collaborative effort of vol-
unteers that looks like a hierarchical, traditional organization from
the outside. It is built by a small core of people that construct a scaf-
folding of go-to people, enabling a large number of volunteers to
cooperate on a common goal in quantities of people not possible
before the net was available.

As we describe the swarm concept, it is easy to think of pure decen-
tralized amorphous clouds of people, like Anonymous or the
Occupy Wall Street movement. However, while these swarms share
values, they do not share direction or method
. That means they are
confined to succeeding on small projects that span a relatively small
number of people over a relatively short time span, even if each of
those small projects builds gradual awareness of the Anonymous or
Occupy brands.

I found that the typical Internet community methods of inclusion, when combined with strong leadership, work much better to achieve global change than work-
ing leaderlessly under little more than a common flag.

This sets it completely apart from a traditional corporation or
democratic institution, which focuses sharply on what people must
do and what bounds and limits they are confined to. This difference
is part of why a swarm can be so effective: everybody can find
something he or she likes to do, all the time, off a suggested palette
that furthers the swarm’s goals — and there is nobody there to tell
people how things must or may not be done.

Somehow I still feel that Brooks is reading better stuff than the institutional left.


Belle Waring 05.21.14 at 11:17 am

Our daughters are curious about what is going to be underwater when they are old, and Singapore’s highest point being 400ft above sea-level, well. But then one thinks, they have all these really quite huge areas of undeveloped land (huge relative to the size of the island as a whole and huge when one considers the value of the privately developed condos on similar land, or the public housing.) The government of Singapore releases chunks of State land in yearly batches, announced some time in advance, which grow and shrink as the gov’t tries to heat or cool the property market, fiddling ever-more-finely with the knobs. I am confident that groups of technocrats are gaming out various dike-schemes as we speak. I idly wonder whether they won’t maybe be able to build vast structures on nano-material-enchanced re-bar stilts, a reversion to a kampong at 1:1000 scale. Brooks and his ilk always clearly envy Singapore’s government and its ability to form elite commissions and then push through their suggested changes, right to the end. It has its virtues, of course, but it is of limited application outside a closed city-state. I’m not sure even it can stand up to the mighty forces of the sea. But otherwise your whole nation becomes homeless? This is a tangent to the OP, the point is that Brooks (like Safire and Buckley) has a hard-on for LKY. But that ain’t how the United States’ democracy is set up; no, not at all.


Clay Shirky 05.21.14 at 11:22 am

Brooks has recognized that the problems America faces all stem from the fact that elites do not have any real mechanism for having their concerns taken seriously by Congress.

You may call him a dreamer — you’re not the only one — but at least the man is standing up for the idea that the well-off should have a voice in the politics our our country.


bob mcmanus 05.21.14 at 11:28 am

1) It’s Rick Falkvinge, sorry for the typo

2) Currently reading Karatani on Arendt and Isonomia in opposition to liberalism and democracy

3) As usual, liberals and democrats are projecting their own elitism and authoritarianism onto the right.


Z 05.21.14 at 11:45 am

Also this part.

At the national level, American politics has become neurotically democratic. Politicians are campaigning all the time and can scarcely think beyond the news cycle. Legislators are terrified of offending this or that industry lobby, activist group or donor faction.

Ah yes, the problem of American politics is that it is too much democratic, as witnessed by the fact that legislators are influenced by industrial lobbies. I would tend to shrug this all off as not even wrong but the visible delectation tangible in the whole op-ed about all things authoritarian (sorry unimpeded by “democratic feedbacks”) is outright sinister.


engels 05.21.14 at 11:51 am

Our daughters are curious about what is going to be underwater when they are old,

Quite a good site, if you haven’t seen it: worldunderwater.org


MattF 05.21.14 at 12:15 pm

Note that Brooks’ preference for ‘great and good’ presumably extends past social/fiscal policy to questions of war and peace. Seems to me that he’s backing into a Straussian world where the lower classes are subject to military discipline, for their own good.


Ronan(rf) 05.21.14 at 12:20 pm

For people who worry about the demise of representative political parties etc, I wonder what they think of the potential rise of UKIP ? Who do represent positions popular in society (opposition to immigration, Europe and political elites), who appear to be responsive to dissatisfied and marginalised constituents, and who developed from the bottom up by some complicated fusion of local dissatisfication and nonsense.
I would think it’s a good thing, personally. (possibly)


djr 05.21.14 at 1:12 pm

Ronan, UKIP emerged from LSE professor Alan Sked’s Anti-Federalist League and billionaire Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party, and is now run by a former commodities trader. “Bottom up” and “marginalised” are odd words to use…


P O'Neill 05.21.14 at 1:28 pm

Paul Krugman should offer Bobo an elite commission on tax policy consisting of Krugman, Thomas Piketty, and Joseph Stiglitz.


bianca steele 05.21.14 at 1:33 pm

Didn’t you have a book event on democracy a little while back? It doesn’t seem to be listed on the page.

And do we really have to assume people are invoking Hayek when they talk about local knowledge? Why isn’t the assumption ever that they’re groping toward something more like Scott, instead?


Main Street Muse 05.21.14 at 1:35 pm

Brooks, like much of America, has gone mad.

“Democracies tend to have a tough time with long-range planning.”

I thought we hated long-range gov’t planning – left it for the Soviets.

“In some ways, these governments look more progressive than the Western model; in some ways, more conservative. In places like Singapore and China, the best students are ruthlessly culled for government service.”

Here too! But only after a stint at Goldman Sachs…

And is Brooks suggesting that the US emulate China? Did I miss the news that China is no longer a communist state? What is Brooks talking about? Why doesn’t Sulzberger fire Brooks?! Is it because he’s not as “mercurial” as Jill Abramson? I don’t understand any of it…


Lee A. Arnold 05.21.14 at 1:35 pm

Brooks: “…push populist reforms…unapologetically elitist…”

“Democracy” isn’t the only word Brooks doesn’t know: “populism” and “elitism” are antonyms.


Barry 05.21.14 at 1:39 pm

Paul Montgomery 05.21.14 at 8:14 am

” My question is why you all keep thinking what David Brooks says is worth arguing about.”

It’s like analyzing Pravda to figure out what the elites are doing; only a fool believes that they mean what they say; only a fool or a liar will state that they believe what they say.

The best description of David Brooks is my experience with him – he wrote a dumb comparison of ‘red states’ vs. ‘blue states’ (by comparing two counties in a blue state!).
In elucidating the virtues of ‘red states’ he stated that he had been unable to spend more than $20 on dinner there, despite repeated tries, and asking around. The reporter writing a critique of that book lived nearby and didn’t believe it. He gets off the freeway and takes the main road into town, and sees a Red Lobster. He has dinner there, and tells the waitress about the $20 limit; she laughs.

Brooks was caught flat-out lying, and I’ve seen nothing from him since which makes that only a lapse on his part.


Wonks Anonymous 05.21.14 at 1:44 pm

I would respect Brooks a hell of a lot more if he just stated outright democracy is overrated.


DrDick 05.21.14 at 1:46 pm

Oh, he knows what it is and how it works just fine. Bobo just does not like it, because it does not reliably produce the results he and the plutocrats he services desire.


bob mcmanus 05.21.14 at 1:55 pm

And is Brooks suggesting that the US emulate China? Did I miss the news that China is no longer a communist state? What is Brooks talking about?

I have so many notes on China from Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing I don’t what to excerpt.

And yet despite, or perhaps because of, their organizational variety,
in retrospect TVEs may well turn out to have played as crucial a role
in the Chinese economic ascent as vertically integrated, bureaucra­
tically managed corporations did in the US ascent a century earlier.
Their contributions to the success of the reforms are manifold. First,
their labor-intensive orientation enabled them to absorb rural surplus
labor and raise rural incomes without a massive increase in migration
to urban areas. Indeed, most labor mobility in the 1980s was the
movement of farmers out of farming to work in rural collective
enterprises. Second, since TVEs were relatively unregulated, their
entry into numerous markets increased competitive pressure across
the board, forcing not just SOEs but all urban enterprises to improve
their performance. Third, TVEs have been a major source of rural
tax revenue, reducing the fiscal burden on peasants. Since taxes and
levies have been a primary source of peasant grievances, they thereby
contributed to social stability. Moreover, by taking on many of the
taxes and charges that used to be levied on peasants, they have also
helped shelter peasants from predatory local governments. Fourth,
and in key respects most important, by reinvesting profits and rents
locally, TVEs have expanded the size of the domestic market and
created the conditions for new rounds of investment, job creation,
and division of labor.

Liberals spend so much time hating on Republicans they don’t have any time left to read, I guess.


LFC 05.21.14 at 1:57 pm

bianca s.
Didn’t you have a book event on democracy a little while back? It doesn’t seem to be listed on the page.

Yes, CT did have such an event: it was on Knight & Johnson’s The Priority of Democracy. ( I remember it b.c it’s the only CT book event for which I actually read the book. I bought Red Plenty but have only dipped into it, so that doesn’t count.)


Corey Robin 05.21.14 at 2:05 pm

Lee Arnold: “‘populism’ and ‘elitism’ are antonyms.”

Not always.



MPAVictoria 05.21.14 at 2:05 pm

“And, to create opportunities for private profit — let’s not forget the juicy part”

As Atrios says, grifters gonna grift.


LFC 05.21.14 at 2:10 pm

Main St Muse @22:
Did I miss the news that China is no longer a communist state?

In terms of economics, China has not been “a communist state” since Deng began his reforms in the late ’70s/early ’80s. (Its economy now is prob. best described as heavily dirigiste or state-directed capitalism.)


bianca steele 05.21.14 at 2:13 pm

Certainly it’s possible for a kind of paternalism to claim to be the protector of populism, and for a kind of populism to claim justification from submission to proper elite authority. In that case, what the people want is right because the people listen to the elites. What dissenters want is wrong because it’s neither proper submission nor proper alignment with elite consensus. (This is logical but makes it difficult to describe certain individual cases, especially where elites justify their actions in terms of democracy, or the reverse. The fact that it’s so perfectly logical might raise doubts about its accuracy, also.)


Straightwood 05.21.14 at 2:27 pm

I stopped reading Brooks about six months ago to preserve my sanity. I am surprised that anyone here takes him seriously. He is an obvious sophist who peddles shoddy arguments defending vested interests and the status quo. Do yourself a favor and just stop reading his rubbish.


nnyhav 05.21.14 at 2:44 pm


Ronan(rf) 05.21.14 at 3:01 pm

djr – Yeah, but rich backers, dodgy ideologues and charismatic educated elite leaders pretending to be the man in the street is pretty much built into the system. I didn’t say those specific individuals are marginalised, but some of the people they represent are. (And believe their perspective is. Have you seen Robert Ford and Michael Goodwin’s analysis of UKIP ? I havent read the book yet, but their argument is summarised here:


So this is bottom up (to some degree) in that it’s responsive to genuine concerns people have (which I personally think are overwrought, though none the less) and it isn’t just elite manipulation or Middle England Tories, but a voice for a significant part of the white working class.
I’m not trying to use this as some type of contrarian gotcha, but just wondering what people who want to see more responsive political parties think of this development (and the rise of ‘respectable racists’ in Europe)


Patrick 05.21.14 at 3:04 pm

Brooks isn’t an idiot. He’s a genius. This entire article is in code.

It’s about the Tea Party, yo.


Igor Belanov 05.21.14 at 3:16 pm

UKIP are just another far-right party who trade on popular dislike of politicians, a mythical liberal establishment and, more justifiably, the feelings people have that they lack control over their lives (while giving them the wrong targets). They still have their main membership and support from the type of lower middle-class that has traditionally backed fascism.


Anderson 05.21.14 at 3:21 pm

Brooks knows what “democracy” means. He just doesn’t like it.

… All this “the great and the good” sounds like he’s cribbing Cicero, whose politics Brooks seems to share in large part. And indeed, Brooks and Cicero are annoying in the same way. Just imagine Cicero without the rhetorical gifts.

Luckily for Brooks, his tongue & hands are unlikely to end up nailed to the front door of the NY Times.


J Thomas 05.21.14 at 3:55 pm

“In terms of economics, China has not been “a communist state” since Deng began his reforms in the late ’70s/early ’80s. (Its economy now is prob. best described as heavily dirigiste or state-directed capitalism.)”

I guess this is one of those definitional issues. 2/3 of the Chinese economy is state-owned and state-run. By some standards they are 2/3 as communist as they used to be, though by many ideas of communism they were never communist.

I remember when US businessmen looked forward to the tremendous profits they would get when they could export to the Chinese consumer market. They keep hoping that day is coming. Plus they want to believe that communism is dead, so if China is successful then China must have given up communism.

It looks like wishful thinking to me. But I don’t know for sure. Maybe at some point in the next 5 years or so the Chinese communist party will fall apart and they will decide to have free elections, and give the other 2/3 of their economy to privateers, and everything will be peachy-keeny. I’d like that, but I wouldn’t give good odds it will happen.


Plume 05.21.14 at 4:24 pm

This is very similar to the right-libertarian call for greater “freedom and liberty” through the dismantling of the public sphere, which means the dismantling of democracy. If everything is privatized and the private sector becomes the only sector, or close to it, then there is no democracy. Democracy can not exist without a public sector — unless we internalize one after generations of a fully democratized society, and the state “whithers away.” A fully privatized society, OTOH, just means Chomsky’s “private tyranny.”

The Ron Paul’s of this world would rather people (as in, the rich) get to do exactly as they please without interference from the public, from any democratic controls, so they can be as despotic as they please. Of course, despotism comes in many forms, so it must be prevented whether public or private. But at least with the public sphere, and at least in theory, we all should have control over that to prevent that despotism. No such chance exists in an all privatized society. And in an all private society, which has internalized hierarchy in the form of business arrangements, despotism is built right in. A business is set up to foster despotism in the form of “the boss.” From there, it’s a matter of degrees. In an all public sphere, OTOH, and again, at least theoretically, hierarchies are minimal and we all have equal say under the law, making despotism far more difficult to establish, defend or expand.

And on Brook’s charities. The combined charitable spending on all food programs for the hungry in America is roughly 5 billion. They can not handle the problem. Government can. Private charities can not.


Ronan(rf) 05.21.14 at 4:28 pm

Igor Belanov – I don’t really know anything about the history of facism, bar one book I once read (or at least read parts of it) Dylan Rileys ‘Civic foundations of Facism in Europe’. Basically his analysis (IIRC) was to show how fascism arose *specifically through* civil society organisations, (under certain contexts) and through a highly contingent interaction between ground level movements and elites.
I don’t think this is neccesarily relevant in this case, except as a generalisation. If you’re going to look for solutions among civil society rather than elite experts, and hope to change politics through solidarity rather than (theoretically) technocratic policy, then there are downsides. And one of those downsides is that solidarity is not only built on commonalities, but also on exclusion. (As was true under Social Democracy in the West, even if the exclusion was largely a reflection of broader societal norms and practices) So in our current context if you wanted to think through where such a style of politics would lead us, I guess you have to look at the worst aspects of contemporary society,and who that would exclude.
Do you see what I’m saying ? I’m not saying this is coherent, more that I’m just thinking out loud.


Plume 05.21.14 at 4:29 pm

J Thomas,

China was never communist. Nor were they ever socialist. No nation state has ever been either. They were state capitalist, from the beginning. As was Russia, Cuba, North Korea, etc. etc.

Communism is the absence of the state after socialism/democracy has been fully internalized, naturalized, normalized for a society. And socialism is the apotheosis of a fully democratized society, including the economy. Again, this has never happened in the modern world, obviously.

Good breakdown on that (state capitalism theories) here, from Marcel van der Linden.


Plume 05.21.14 at 4:38 pm

P.O’Neill @20,

I’d add a few more to that list. David Harvey, Richard D. Wolff, Sam Ginden and Leo Panitch.

Think about how different America would be right now if, instead of putting together a neoliberal commission on the deficit, Obama had set up a leftish commission on taxation, jobs, inequality, the environment. Think about how much better off we would all be if he included actual Marxists, left-anticapitalists in general, environmentalists, consumer advocates, etc. etc. . . .

Yes, I know. It will never happen. But we should ask ourselves why the default for America has always been to put business interests first and foremost, and labor and the environment last, if ever. Why do we Americans, most of us working class and all of us subject to the environment — why do we just assume it “normal and natural” to put the interests of a tiny, tiny minority above our own? Why do we accept this so readily?


Luke 05.21.14 at 5:25 pm

I’ve just been reading C.B. Macpherson’s ‘The Politics of Possessive Individualism’, which seems germane here. M resolves the apparent contradiction between Locke’s apparent support for ‘majoritarian’ democratic authoritarianism and his defence of individual rights (esp. property) by pointing out that, for Locke, ‘civil society’ simply does not include the labouring classes. Democracy by and for the propertied classes has no contradictions to resolve; it’s purpose is to protect the status quo.

When someone like Brooks (or most liberals, for that matter) talks about democracy, it always seems to me that what he is saying is completely logical — so long as you understand that his definition of democracy implicitly exlcudes the proles, whose duty is to follow thier ‘community leaders’. ‘The greatest part cannot know, and so must believe.’


JW Mason 05.21.14 at 5:36 pm

democratic choice, which is all about collective control of destiny through argument and voting

I agree with this formulation but it’s not always easy to see what it means in practice, or to distinguish it from formal mechanisms for the aggregation of individual choices, which is very different.

Henry, what would you recommend for a good positive account of democracy? Personally, I like Canfora’s Democracy in Europe and Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, but this isn’t really my area.


Luke 05.21.14 at 5:43 pm

@44 Moses Finley’s ‘Democracy Ancient and Modern’ is worth reading, though it’s only the work of a hoary old classicist and probably doesn’t count as part of the ‘literature’.


4jkb4ia 05.21.14 at 6:13 pm

I read the column, and I said, “This makes no sense. If you are talking about building democracy from the ground up then you need people to take responsibility for local issues. A commission won’t do that.” After having read the post, I see how it can make sense. Brooks is starting from the idea that we have too much democracy, so he is thinking about how to preserve some of the advantages of democracy rather than to increase democracy per se.


4jkb4ia 05.21.14 at 6:24 pm

Tocqueville does make the distinction, but it’s easy to confuse. The spirit of democracy is morally ambiguous, but here to stay. The Americans are successful at it because they have free institutions such as the township which require local knowledge. Each person can apply to the public sphere what he/she knows about the local conditions and about self-interest well understood. Charities/benevolent associations were a large part of the America that Tocqueville was writing about and he considered free association almost unequivocally positive. So Brooks is trying to encourage more free institutions responsible to the people who will take responsibility for them and doing it badly.

I am writing this because freedom does not only include the idea of local knowledge (also includes the idea of rights and various other things) but principally because I finished Democracy in America all of last week.


Donald Johnson 05.21.14 at 7:07 pm

What did Tony Judt say that was anti-democratic? I’m not asking this in an argumentative sort of way–I’m asking because I don’t know. I have only read a few of his essays.


Plume 05.21.14 at 7:18 pm

I’d also like to know where Judt is anti-democratic. Have read two of his books and several of his articles, most recently, Ill Fares the Land, which is excellent. He makes a good case for his social democracy, though I don’t think he goes nearly far enough. But I don’t recall him being anti-democratic.

Very good article by Hal Draper on Marx and Democracy, his definition, etc.

Marx on Democratic Forms of Government

An excerpt:

Throughout the history of the socialist/communist movements, one of the persistent problems has been to establish the relation, in theory and practice, between the struggle for socialism and for democracy (or democratic rights), between socialist issues and democratic issues. Every distinctive socialist current or school has had its own characteristic answer to this problem. On one extreme end of the spectrum is the view (held consciously in theory or expressed in practice) which puts the advocacy of democratic forms in the forefront, for their own sake, and subjoins the advocacy of socialistic ideas as an appurtenance. (From the Marxist standpoint, this is merely the leftmost wing of bourgeois-democratic liberalism extruding into the socialist spectrum.) On the other extreme is the type of radical ideology which counterposes socialistic ideas – in the sense of anti-capitalist views – against concern with democratic struggles, considering the latter as unimportant or harmful. Every conceivable mixture of the two approaches has cropped up too, but they all form a single family insofar as they are mixtures, (For example: in the tension between socialist aims and democratic means, is your concern 50-50, 60-40, 30-70, etc.?)

Marx’s approach is qualitatively different from this sort of eclecticism, and does not attempt to establish a sliding scale of concern with the two sides of the duality. For him, the task of theory is to integrate the two objectively. The characteristic answer to the problem emerging from Marx’s theory was already heralded in his notebook critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right [2], where he sought to show that “true democracy” requires a new social content – socialism; and it will be rounded off with his analysis of the Paris commune, which showed that a state with a new social content entailed truly democratic forms. Marx’s theory moves in the direction of defining consistent democracy in socialist terms, and consistent socialism in democratic terms. The task of theory, then, is not to adjudicate a clash between the two considerations (a hopeless job once the problem is seen in that light), but rather to grasp the social dynamics of the situation under which the apparent contradiction between the two is resolved.


Patrick 05.21.14 at 7:28 pm

Guys, come on. This column isn’t written with words. It is a soothing mumble meant to make the target audience more comfortable with conservative elites and less comfortable with the idea of actual electoral populism. Which party is mired in a dispute between conservative elites and conservative populism? Oh, right. And which side is Brooks on? Oh, right. And can he attack the populists openly after having spent so much time trying to convince them that he is the smarter, better-read version of them? Oh, right.

This isn’t an argument. It is… branding. He doesn’t want the commissions. He wants his audience to agree that conservative elites are the people we should be listening to. He’s not making a pitch, he’s normalizing an assumption from the pitch.


Harold 05.21.14 at 9:11 pm

Patrick is correct, David Brooks is “only kidding”.


Harold 05.21.14 at 9:27 pm

Robert Kagan on the reason he never became a Straussian:

It was because my father[, a classics professor at Cornell at the same time as Allen Bloom] explained to me, as well as to Bloom, of course, that Bloom did not understand Plato. This may seem a bit outrageous to many people today, given Bloom’s reputation. But I still think my father was right, and at the time I had no doubt that he was right. …
As best I can recall, their biggest point of contention was whether Plato was just kidding in The Republic. Bloom said he was just kidding. I later learned that this idea–that the greatest thinkers in history never mean what they say and are always kidding–is a core principle of Straussianism. My friend, the late Al Bernstein, also taught history at Cornell. He used to tell the story about how one day some students of his, coming directly from one of Bloom’s classes, reported that Bloom insisted Plato did not mean what he said in The Republic. To which Bernstein replied: “Ah, Professor Bloom wants you to think that’s what he believes. What he really believes is that Plato did mean what he said.”


J Thomas 05.22.14 at 12:09 am

“China was never communist. Nor were they ever socialist. No nation state has ever been either. They were state capitalist, from the beginning. As was Russia, Cuba, North Korea, etc. etc.”

Plume, you can if you want reserve “communism” for something which has never ever happened. But most people use it to talk about state capitalism.

I have a point, and I want to express it in metaphor.

Imagine that there are a lot of people who think that wild boars ought to wander around wherever they want to, eating whatever they can. The boars will get big and fat, and these people believe that when the boars are fat it’s good for everybody. Wild boars deserve to eat anything they can get, and anything that gets eaten by boars, deserves to be eaten by boars.

They are convinced that when people try to herd boars the result is bad for the boars and therefore bad for everybody. You cannot possibly find as much food for your boar herd as the boars can find for themselves roaming wherever they want to go. Trying to herd the boars is inefficient and counterproductive, it never works.

Somehow they believe that the reason China used to be poor was that the Chinese spent too much time herding boars, and when they see China rapidly gaining wealth it must be because the Chinese have given their pigs the freedom to do whatever they want.

But really, what the Chinese have done is put their boars in pens and feed them a whole lot. The boars get big and fat quickly. And when the boars grow fast, foreigners want some of the good results so they send to China food and medicine and everything to help boars grow faster, in exchange for the Chinese saying they have part ownership of the boars.

So when I hear somebody say “Ever since Deng, the pigs in China have been free!” I want to say, no wait, maybe you’re fooling yourself because you want to believe it. I don’t really care whether the Chinese ever did a whole lot of swineherding, and I don’t care whether they publicly announced that the pigs belonged to everybody. The thing I think is important is that in fact the pigs in China are not really free, even today.


shah8 05.22.14 at 1:40 am

Do you think Brooks was inspired by this baffler post?



roy belmont 05.22.14 at 3:04 am

Let’s see. Democracy is the rule of the people by the people.
So if you’re not really an “of the people” kind of person, or you’re a member of a powerful minority that thinks it’s superior to the majority, that democracy business could be unpleasant, even dangerous, for you, depending.
Also it would limit your ability to take advantage of the people to their disadvantage, because the more powerful the people become the less they’ll be inclined to tolerate predation on themselves.
It’s one of the founding matters of the US, right?

But there’s a knowledge thing in there.
How do the people know what’s good or bad for them?
They get information from each other, through systems of information – media, mostly.
So hey, if we can get to the information first, get to the systems of information ahead of them, we can still tolerate democracy, because we can choose what they see, and what they don’t, we can design what they think about what they’re seeing, and thus what and who they will predictably vote for.
And that was American democracy in the latter 20th c.
A majority whose ideas about the world were shaped virtually entirely by a minority voice that had gained the trust of the majority by its ubiquity, its central place in the American home.
A majority who were confident of their independence and freedom of thought, because they were being told that constantly, by a voice they trusted.

So then the internet changed all that, for about a decade and a half, but then everything went bananas. And now it’s bananas all the way up.
Contempt for the majority by an elite minority is pretty common in human affairs, evidently. It often correlates directly with power.

Human worth is now measured financially, not personally, not by good people, not by sensible people, but publicly by the degraded laws and the degraded values of a culture formed to order and implemented with force by a contemptuous minority.

In light of that Brooks placing himself and his ilk clad fellow elite above democracy makes great sense.
You don’t want children remodeling the house, especially if they aren’t your kids.


Ronan(rf) 05.22.14 at 1:39 pm

niiiice little post about China and the questions raised above



TM 05.22.14 at 6:27 pm

Ceterum censeo: stop wasting so much blog time and space on discussing right wing lunatics. It really suffices to say they are lunatics (from time to time, that is, not every second blog post) and move on.


dax 05.23.14 at 8:37 am

Everyone wants commissions to rule the world.


Is the objection really to commissions, or to the advice they might give?


R Richatd Schweitzer 05.24.14 at 2:33 am

In his last writings, the late Kenneth Minogue “Democracy is a process.” The wordsmiths (a.k.a. “intellectuals”) of today’s world, such as David Brooks and John Mickelthwait, etc., all conjecture Democracy as a “condition;” usually as comprised of unspecified or assumed relationships.

“Democracy is a process.” As a process it is *one* of the “tools” for the operation and direction of a social order. It is the *use* of the tool which determines its effects. The use of that tool, and its effects, are, in turn, determined by the characteristics (qualities) of the members of the polity, which thus determines how that tool is used as well is the objectives for its use.

Most of the suggestions occurring to the wordsmiths relate to the substitution of *other* tools for the operation and direction of the social order. The suggestions for commissions, committees of the “great and good” are all implications of inadequacies of the polity to use the tool of the Democratic process.

Perhaps the real questions are: Is the Democratic process a tool of limited use? Are we attempting to use the tool for too many or inappropriate tasks? Are there inadequacies and can they be corrected in the polity which has access to the use of this tool? In the case of the United States, has there been a change in the characteristics of the members of the polity that has changed the uses made of the tool of the Democratic process?

Are we not seeing evolution and devolution rather than revolution?

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