The Return of the King – pt. 2

The monarchic institutionin sum, is as tenacious as detrimental. And it would be hard, if not impossible, to find a people who loves its democratically-elected leader as much as the Thais have loved King Rama.

Once I heard two guys talking about the forthcoming general elections:

G1: “I will not vote, no. Nobody represents me, each one is worse than the other.”
G2: “I understand what you say, but you have to choose. Otherwise nothing changes. This is how democracy works: either you choose the party that is closest to your ideas – for as bad as it can be –, or you take the initiative and gather all those who, as you do, feel unrepresented. Hoping that…”
G1: “Yes, right, hoping… No. It is not possible.”

And again later, about the Italian constitutional referendum:

“I mean, I want someone who decides, I want someone that at some point stands up and says “Enough, this is what we’ll do”, because otherwise, I mean – you know? – I don’t know, we talk and talk, and nothing ever moves…”

I could see some sort of shame in their eyes, while “confessing” these ideas. A sort of embarrassment in discovering themselves as young and yet discouraged, not-so-politically-correct. But this shame is unjustified, and needs to be addressed. It is clear what they have in mind, as much as it is clear that democracy is disappointing, and that the best form of government, if we focus only on efficiency, is enlightened absolutism. We could all agree on this, but there’s much beyond these ideas.

These two (of many) anecdotes are very useful in representing two different social models, the two irreconcilable and alternative philosophies that were implicitly under exam in the discussions above.
On one hand, we have what is monocratic, all those social models in which an individual (or a narrow group) is somehow above all others. As in monarchies, for instance.
On the other, what is democratic, all those social models who require equality, diffused powers, collective decisions, multitudes. But also long time and complex elaborations, often ineffective and inefficient.
By definition, what is monocratic is decisionist. Even classist, at its extreme. Often arbitrary but also clear, direct, and determined (“univocal”), effective and efficient. Taking it to the extreme: on one hand we have speed, economy, lightning-quick power – Marinetti‘s zang tumb tumb; on the other, slowness, reflection, temperance, mildness, doubt, repetition. Democracy is anaphora, can become a monotonous chant.

Of course there is an hybridization between monocracy and democracy (e.g. monocratic roles in democratic governments, and assemblies in monarchies). But the social model goes beyond the form of government, and focuses on the predilection of a society for one of these (or even other) philosophies in any social context – in politics, within the family, at work, in education, etc. –, in particular on the possibility that someone (a strong leader) could raise his voice and, at some point, put an end to the debate.

This is a fundamental point: any debate, to be authentically democratic, is actually restricted, limited in time. Otherwise we would be exposed to the tyranny of procrastinators and obstructionists. This does not mean that the outcome is always a decision, in particular a positive decision (a change, a progress, a modification, a resolution). On the contrary, decisions are usually an exception. But here is the point: what does this mean? Is a non-decision only the result of a procedural short circuit? Not in general. As long as the democratic (representative) system keeps the connection with the whole society alive (a non-trivial issue, but of a different nature), the impossibility to get to a resolution, to a compromise, implies that the alternatives on the table are not satisfactory for society as a whole. In this sense, then, there is no impasse without a political meaning. That is, in the counterfactual hypothesis in which, instead, this resolution would have been taken, it would have implied a social loss. We would have chosen something actually not satisfying. Ergo: any rupture of the impasse, of the status quo, due only to the intervention of a deus ex machina, is nothing but a sub-optimal choice, a bad decision. It is the result of silencing the dissent of the dissatisfied. And this is probably worth noticing.

Here is a first complication. Societies, as a whole, might not be forward-looking and forward-thinking, might have a hard time in finding out their self-interest, and they are not always capable of coupling means and ends. For multiple reasons that social sciences have long ago identified (intergenerational conflicts, for example). But is democracy unaware of these failures? No, of course. Several different mechanisms are used to create buffers to impede these degenerations: the representative system that mitigates direct democracy, a meritocratic (and possibly transparent) system that allocates some decisions to those who have desirable technical competences, also the long duration of the processes, who enable to have multiple feedbacks. So how can we explain the widespread distrust towards the democratic system and its antibodies? How can we explain the love for monocracy?

It can be explained, probably, looking at the socio-cultural requirements on which democracies are founded. For our reasoning, for example, it has been necessary to articulate a series of questions, to deepen a logical argument. Is this a dynamic that permeates our society? Not always, to say the least. Mainly because of time and education constraints. We are required speed and simplicity, while democracy is relatively slow and absolutely complex. Complexity, time, logic, education, are frequently conceived as superior goods.

And, most of all, democracy is based on two quasi-anthropological pillars, whose essence is deep trust (or faith). Trust that:

  1. In ordinary people we can find extra-ordinary capabilities (here);
    and
  2. We can decide with the contribution of all (or of most of us), taking all of us into account.

With the only exception of open web platforms (see here), very few recent developments move in this direction. We prefer stories of excellence, of individual heroism, of gifted intuitions, of genius. Nothing revolutionary, to get back to the starting point, if we look at the conclusion that Voltaire reached centuries ago with his despotisme éclairé:

“Well now, is it better for your fatherland to be a monarchy or a republic? For four thousand years has this question been debated. Ask the rich for an answer, they all prefer aristocracy; question the people, they want democracy: only kings prefer royalty. How then is it that nearly the whole world is governed by monarchs? Ask the rats who proposed to hang a bell round the cat’s neck. But in truth, the real reason is, as has been said, that men are very rarely worthy of governing themselves” (Voltaire, 1764,Philosophical Dictionary”, p. 132, “Fatherland”).

Also, Voltaire’s crucial idea of enlightened monarch enriches the picture with another element: risk. If we abstract from the risk factor, it is extremely simple to identify which are the optimal social model and the optimal form of government. In an enlightened monocracy, in a society populated by über-individuals, by perfect atoms, the social optimum is granted. Not by chance a huge economic literature is based on the figure of the social planner, as a matter of fact an enlightened ruler, forward-looking and capable of obtaining and selecting all the necessary and sufficient information to make the socially-optimal choices. We could also hypothesize – differently from what the economic literature does, preferring invisible hands – that such an individual actually exists. After all, Frederick II – “the Great” – was not a mythological character. But the point is: What is the risk of incurring, at some point, into a well-crafted imitation made of self-interest and continuous failures? Almost full. As the risk that, once the King has been found and the system has been adapted to the exigencies of a monocracy, his successor (as Maha?) would not be equally good.

But, also here, two points cannot be ignored:

  1. If, instead of looking at society as a whole, we looked at the interest of specific groups, the probability of encountering en enlightened ruler would vertiginously grow. The information and the means necessary to satisfy only a fraction of the entire society are much more easily reachable (by definition of interest group). But it seems a quite unfair way of looking at the issue: ignoring winners and losers. No autocrat has ever ruled by his own, as well as no autocrat has ever protected the interests of all. But, as a matter of fact, this is a huge simplification: we don’t need a social planner, it is enough to find someone sufficiently competent and benevolent to protect the interests of “the best among us”. The most educated, the most economically active, the most intelligent and able, the most morally valuable. It’s hardly worth bring Brecht into this to underline that, also in this case, the odds of falling, sooner or later, among the losers, are much higher than zero (see, as usual, Rawls and his veil of ignorance);
  2. What relationship do we have with risk? Do individuals like risk? Does societies (as a whole) like risk? Do we have the same taste for risk in public and in private decisions? The legal system, at least in civil law countries, usually sees the ideal citizen as someone behaving with the diligence and the prudence of the good family man. But who is the contemporary family man? In a context in which the constraints imposed to the financial system and its management are continuously blown up, the question seems legitimate. Are we in a society promoting risk? Because this would be a game-change. From a theoretical point of view, it is perfectly comprehensible that our society consciously decided to live in the splendour of a belle époque at the risk of ignoring that, in the mean time, we are harboring the harbingers of a world war. It is completely legitimate that a society – i.e. the families who compose it – decided to live permanently beyond its means, at the cost of cyclical financial crises. But we need to be aware of this, indeed. Donald Trump’s election proves that people are more and more likely to consciously choose to risk autocracy rather than keeping on bearing the impasse. Forgetting the lesson of history can be a rational choice, in this context.

We do not have only the easy example of a democratic degeneration (Trump) to prove this. It is actually more instructive to look at its contrary. At the figure that nowadays personifies Voltaire’s enlightened ruler, at least in appearance: Pope Francis. A “good” monocrat, deeply reformative, who represents a wide part (actually the majority) of his population, and meets the sympathies of the progressives (see also here and here). One of the few global actors capable of communicating to the masses values and themes as equality, interculturalism, environmental protection, fight against poverty, corruption.

And we can retrace all the elements listed above. Pope Francis is distinctly decisionist, takes decisions swiftly and often without listening to the bodies he should dialog with. But in the end his decisions seem to be appreciated. He acts in the interest of all (although some think the opposite). A saint, that both liberals and moderates like, who often represents the only bastion in defense of humanity, capable of raising his voice in hard times. “Fortunately, at least there’s Pope Francis”, “only Pope Francis defended the migrants”, “if only our politicians were like the Pope”, “we need someone like Pope Francis”, “Pope Francis for president” (see here, here, here, and here). Things that Italians, especially in Rome, are very used to hear, and frequently believe, firmly.

To be pedantic: are we sure that this is a realistic image? No, as with Wojtyla. Although it probably is. But who ensures that Pope Francis will not be followed by a Young Pope? No one can guarantee that, after a Southern-American pope, it won’t be the turn of an alt-right Northern-American to express his vision of the world. In sum, a good concentrate of all the reasons and dynamics for which, long time ago, societies chose to redeem themselves from a monocratic power.

Maybe the structural conditions that motivated that struggle have changed. Maybe we are not patient anymore, we don’t have time. We don’t have trust in the capabilities of all, we don’t live in an egalitarian humanism, in a real Knowledge Age. We do not believe in our ability to live and decide together, we see our universe as efficient if and only if purely atomistic, individualist, even beyond the old commercial society. Maybe we do not care anymore about a general/collective interest, a common good – we thought that this was the issue! It isn’t! In the end, we have discovered that we just need to make the interests of our own part –, we surrender to an unsatisfactory reality, at least for a big share of us. Or we simply like to risk so, we like the Great Gatsby’s thrill, to drink and party to madness, before the night comes.

The trivial statement according to which a determined social order (as that inspired by democratic principles) is not irreversible, is based on the flexibility of the assumptions above. Time, complexity, equality, widespread capabilities, coexistence and commonality, trust, risk. But what do we really desire, today? An enlightened monocracy, an efficient oligarchy.

The hypothesis of a contemporaneity promoting monocracy is not science fiction. It makes us realize that, following our current instincts and tendencies, the King will come back. He will come and strike back. Or maybe he has never left. Or, even more gravely, he’s already back into power.


[F.O.]
Featured image: Conor Harrington, The Unveiling (2014)

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