YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

August 24, 2009

“The People is an Ass” (or a “Herd”?)

A Piranesi “prison”

Prior blogs have touched upon the lineage of so-called multiculturalism, a reactionary ideological offensive that confused individuals with groups and suppressed economic explanations for conflict and change in favor of cultural anthropological ones. As a manifestation of German Romanticism, it was an aesthetic theory buttressing a political structure: an irrationalist völkisch “aristo-democracy” (Herder). The German Romantics and their popularizers in England and America, men like Carlyle and Emerson, waved their supple poetic individuality, unique, yet imperceptibly diffused into race and nation and time itself as Schlegel had advised. The aristo-democrats were the blooming correctives to the dessicating “mechanical” rationalism and universalism that had undergirded popular sovereignty for the seventeenth-century political theorist of constitutional democracy, John Locke. In the eighteenth century, Piranesi would visualize this Lockean world in a series of engravings, his nightmarish urban spaces/prisons. Lord Byron counterattacked with Lockean Prometheans, images of indomitable humanity: fatherless, yet kind, ameliorative and intellectually fortified. In the later nineteenth century, Piranesi’s desolate, gigantic scenes of torture would reappear in James Thomson’s poem The City of Dreadful Night, the City ruled by numeracy and literacy personified in Melencolia, the Queen patterned after both Dürer’s famous image of writer’s block, and George Eliot, Thomson’s contemporary, the realist novelist, author of Felix Holt, Radical. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/, and look for the passages on James Thomson.)

I have mentioned just a few instances of cultural conflict over accountability: the culture wars are fought over you and me, non-experts in an advanced, complex, and hierarchical, yet “democratic” industrialized society. Confident in the capacity of ordinary people to test their betters, Locke, like ourselves, was up against centuries of conservative antidemocratic propaganda on behalf of a tribal or feudal order where either Nature or arbitrary authority were taken for granted as immovable. Not surprisingly, social obligations (contracts) were vertical, links in the Great Chain of Being, not horizontal agreements between equals, each party theoretically free to walk away from a bad deal. Locke’s antagonistic contemporary, the proto-Tory Robert Filmer (d. 1653) summarized centuries of antidemocratic wisdom in his Patriarcha:

[Filmer:] “I know not how to give a better character of the people than can be gathered from such authors as have lived among or near to popular states. Thucydides, Xenophon, Livy, Tacitus, Cicero and Sallust have set them out in their colours. I will borrow some of their sentences.

‘There is nothing more uncertain than the people: their opinions are as variable and sudden as tempests: there is neither truth nor judgment in them: they are not led by wisdom to judge of anything, but by violence and rashness, nor put they any difference between things true and false. After the matter of cattle they follow the herd that goes before: with envious eyes they behold the felicity of others: they have a custom always to favor the worst and weakest: they are most prone to suspicions, and use to condemn men for guilty upon every false suggestion. They are apt to believe all news, especially if it be sorrowful, and, like Fame, they make it more in the believing: when there is no author, they fear those evils which they themselves have feigned: they are most desirous of new stirs and changes, and are enemies to quiet and rest. Whatsoever is giddy or headstrong, they account manly and courageous, but whatever is modest or provident seems sluggish: each man hath a care of his particular, and thinks basely of the common good: they look upon approaching mischiefs as they do upon thunder, only every man wisheth it may not touch his own person. It is the nature of them: they must either serve basely or domineer proudly, for they know no mean.’ Thus do their own friends paint to the life this beast of many heads. Let me give you the cypher of their form of government. As it is begot by sedition, so it is nourished by arms: it can never stand without wars, either with an enemy abroad, or with friends at home. The only means to preserve it is to have some powerful enemy near, who may serve instead of a king to govern it, that so, that they have not a King over them, for the common danger of an enemy keeps them in better unity than the laws they make themselves.” [end Filmer quote]

The foil to all this irrationality is of course the reformed queen/king; the paragon of moderation has renounced absolutist, arbitrary rule for a limited, constitutional monarchy: one that protects the body politic from combative and divisive “special interests.” Unlike the Cool Head with the Warm Heart, Filmer’s “people” are the locus of selfish individualism; the people are incapable of solidarity without an external enemy; the ever-befuddled people lack the self-control to separate inner voices and impulses from the outer world; the people have no self-respect: they may be servile or, given a measure of authority, they will whip their charges to extract obedience; i.e., the barbaric, headlong people have neither the taste nor the capacity for gentleness or politeness. Let them have outlets for their characteristic sadism and masochism, as Geoffrey Gorer proposed in 1934; ‘tis better than the trap of romantic love. After the second world war Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism popularized the notion of protofascist “mob society”–both cynical and gullible–in terms that echoed Filmer. Similarly, Todd Gitlin has claimed that the mounting Right-wing critique of the new curricula is best understood as a frenzied hunt for new scapegoats after the Cold War was won in 1989; Gitlin asserts that the presence of the Other provides the only source of “national identity.”

Return now to the seventeenth century. Responding to the autocratic Filmer, John Locke adumbrated his concept of legitimate authority. In The Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke argued that monarchs were not beyond criticism, nor were the people so unbalanced that they could not assess their own interests and the performance of their protectors:

[Locke:] “The end of government is the good of mankind; and which is best for mankind, that the people should always be exposed to the boundless will of tyranny, or that the rulers should be sometimes liable to be opposed when they grow exorbitant in their use of power, and employ it for the destruction, and not the preservation, of the properties of their people?
     Nor let anyone say that mischief can arise from hence as often as it shall please a busy head or turbulent spirit to desire the alteration of the government. It is true such men may stir whenever they please, but it will be only to their own just ruin and perdition. For till the mischief be grown general, and the ill designs of the rulers become visible, or their attempts sensible to the greater part of the people, who are more disposed to suffer than right themselves by resistance, are not apt to stir. The example of particular injustice or oppression of here and there an unfortunate man moves them not. But if they universally have a persuasion grounded upon manifest evidence that designs are carrying on against their liberties, and the general course and tendency of things cannot but give them strong suspicions of the evil intentions of their governors, who is to be blamed for it? Who can help it if they, who might avoid it, bring themselves into this suspicion? Are the people to be blamed if they have the sense of rational creatures, and can think of things no otherwise than as they find and feel them? And is it not rather their fault who put things in such a posture that they would not have them thought as they are? I grant that the pride, ambition, and turbulency of private men have sometimes caused great disorders in commonwealths, and factions have been fatal to states and kingdoms. But whether the mischief hath oftener begun in the people’s wantonness, and a desire to cast off the lawful authority of their rulers, or in the rulers’ insolence and endeavours to get and exercise an arbitrary power over their people, whether oppression or disobedience gave the first rise to the disorder, I leave it to impartial history to determine. This I am sure, whoever, either ruler or subject, by force goes about to invade the rights of either prince or people, and lays the formulation for overturning the constitution and frame of any just government, he is guilty of the greatest crime I think a man is capable of, being to answer for all those mischiefs of blood, rapine, and desolation, which the breaking to pieces of governments bring on a country; and he who does it is justly to be esteemed the common enemy and pest of mankind, and is to be treated accordingly.” [end Locke quote]

Yes, there are demagogues, but they would have no credibility were it not for the excesses of the rulers. Taken with his statements on natural law, it is clear that Locke is not protecting private property as unlimited personal aggrandizement, but the confiscation of lower-class property and labor by tyrannical rulers–a crucial distinction for those who view Locke as an image of Filmer’s people: the “possessive individualist” par excellence. The radical liberal ideal of one set of rules for rich and poor alike and the assumption of rationalism upon which the rule of law depended was a radical innovation; it remains an advanced position and belongs in the democratic tradition, notwithstanding efforts to brand Locke solely as a hypocrite and supporter of slavery.

Tories and Whigs crucially differed on the educational potential of “the people.” If Nature’s God was a democrat for the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century progressive bourgeois, organic conservatives reclaimed Nature for the aristocracy. In antebellum America, Filmer’s good fathers were models for socially responsible slaveholders contrasting their benevolent paternalism with the cruelty of northern laissez-faire capitalism and class struggle. Indeed, the distinguished historian of the South, C.Vann Woodward, a participant in the Martha’s Vineyard conference on “Racism and Education” (excerpted in my blog on Pacifica, Part One) revived the southern apologist for slavery George Fitzhugh to lobby for organic conservatism as antidote to today’s mass society. Filmer’s image of “the people” would be indistinguishable from “the unconscious” in the social psychology espoused by many in the twentieth-century Progressive movement–conservative reformers responding to the rapid growth of industrialism and class warfare that Northern victory in the Civil War facilitated. Mass “irrationality” remains the argument for the eternal rule of philosopher-kings operating “in the public interest” in bureaucratic collectivist societies. While Lockean ideas of the common good have been co-opted, Filmer’s theory shades upper-class secret machinations from the blazing eyes of the lower orders. The unresolved debate between Filmer and Locke frames the work of the Yankee Doodle Society; our models of human capacity determine our politics as we face “the mischief…grown general” on our endangered planet.

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5 Comments »

  1. […] have created the pseudo-progressive movement with its dire view of the paranoid people (see http://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/), popular unteachability, and indecipherable documents from the past. Meanwhile “experts” have […]

    Pingback by “America is in decline”: cui bono? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 8, 2014 @ 8:00 pm | Reply

  2. [...] http://clarespark.com/2009/08/24/the-people-is-an-ass-or-a-herd/ (aristocratic views of “the People”) [...]

    Pingback by Blogs on Freud and anti-Freudians | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 16, 2013 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on YDS: The Clare Spark Blog and commented:

    This decodes antidemocratic propaganda, starting with the 17th century. Filmer, Locke, and Piranesi are the leading characters.

    Comment by clarespark — March 5, 2013 @ 7:14 am | Reply


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