Plato boiled political evolution down to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship. There are many illustrations of the sequence in history -- not least in the French Revolution, and what is happening in Russia today. At the same time, democracy seems to be under strain in the United States, the United (for the moment) Kingdom, and in South Africa, not to mention the European Union, where unelected bureaucrats and central bankers are dictating policy to Greece, Spain, and Portugal in a way that negates democracy.
Is democracy forever, or could it be near a tipping point where the number of truly democratic countries -- on the rise since the eighteenth century -- starts to go into reverse?
I have been reading another of the essays from Will and Ariel Durant written in 1968, this one on Government and History. Here are some of their observations:
Does history justify revolutions?
The French Revolution replaced the landowning aristocracy with the money-controlling business class as the ruling power; but a similar result occurred in nineteenth-century England without bloodshed.
The only real revolution is the enlightenment of the mind and the improvement of character, the only real emancipation is individual, and the only real revolutionists are philosophers and saints.
Every advance in the complexity of the economy puts an added premium upon superior ability, and intensifies the concentration of wealth, responsibility, and political power.
All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought, science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation raised up ability from every rank and place.
But they close with a warning that there are three threats to democracy:
• "if the itch to rule the world requires a large military establishment", then the freedoms of democracy may be marginalized
• "If race or class war divides us into hostile camps" the same thing might happen
• "If our economy fails to distribute wealth as ably as it has created it, the road to dictatorship will be open ... and a martial government, under whatever charming phrases, will engulf the democratic world."
How Serious Are the Threats to Democracy?
It seems to me that a case can be made today under all three of the Durants' headings.
The United States has not resisted the urge to try to rule the world, and maintains a military establishment that is more than ten times that of any other country. In the so-called (and badly named) "war on terror", personal liberties have been clipped, and surveillance on the population of America and its allies has reached epidemic proportions. If most of us don't yet feel threatened, it is because we are not yet classified as enemies of America. For many innocent people, however, victims of rendition, bombing, and unlawful imprisonment, the slide to tyranny is discernible; and it has happened under Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
The threatened race wars within Western democracies have, on the other hand, failed to materialize. Despite large-scale immigration of people from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe into some Western European countries, the process has been remarkably smooth.
On the other hand, the failure of the liberal elite in countries such as France, Holland and England to control immigration has led to some tension in key cities and has electoral consequences. The ideal of a multi-racial society has been only half a success, with many immigrants maintaining their cultural identity and some building foreign enclaves within the host societies. This is nothing that cannot be dealt with by a more sensible immigration policy -- though in Europe, this would require a complete change of attitude from the EU, or else for countries to leave it. On the whole, though, I do not see race or cultural issues as a major threat to the established democracies.
The class issue is more ambiguous.
The first thing to be said is that capitalism has broadly increased its reach around the world and that this aspect of "globalization" has cut world poverty to an extraordinary degree. This is the outstanding change in my lifetime and it is wholly good news. But the relationship between capitalism and democracy is quite loose. Capitalism can thrive under any political system, even under the tyranny still evident in China. There may be a sense in which capitalism raises up a middle class that tends to favour democracy, and optimists may believe that this will happen in China. But the jury is out.
Many worry about rising inequality. This is a complex subject and there are trends and counter-trends. Global inequality has plummeted. Inequality in most Western democracies has stayed roughly the same, with some moves up and down, depending on the country and time period taken. In the United States inequality has increased since the Durants wrote, though not since 2007. So far, rising inequality in America has caused remarkably few political ripples.
My view -- and I suspect it would have been that of Will and Ariel Durant -- is that the issue we ought to fret about is not inequality but social mobility. Here, too, the data are mixed. But a disturbing trend is emerging, in both the U.S. and UK, where successful women marry successful men and educate their children privately -- while public education in many places leaves much to be desired. Rich kids increasingly have genetic and environmental advantages that could be leading to a new hereditary upper class. When they graduate, they are in pole position for the plum jobs in investment banking, venture capital, and consulting, and they are much more likely than others to start their own business. And so the cycle continues, taking us back towards the social structure of the 1920ss.
Overall, democracy is in better shape, in the West, in Eastern Europe, in India and in much of the rest of Asia than it was in 1968. Most notably, the death of communism has done untold good. The fears of Will and Ariel Durant have not, in general, materialized. But the issues they drew attention to -- the over-mighty military-espionage complex, and social and racial harmony, are still the ones to watch.
The 80/20 principle says that there are few issues that really matter in any sphere. For me, the vital two issues, in order of importance, are increasing social mobility through high quality public education and encouraging people of all backgrounds to start and join new ventures; and ensuring that potential immigrants share the values of the society they seek to join. That, and taking pride in those liberal values of tolerance and human worth which are the true foundation of any healthy democracy.
We have much to criticize, but on the whole society today is gentler, more united and richer in every way than it was half a century ago, and we should give ourselves two cheers for muddling through rather well.