May 31st, 2005


Democritus or democracy?

The Guardian today has an interesting breakdown of the kinds of people voting Yes and No in Sunday's Euro-constitution referendum:

"Only majorities of professionals, graduates and pensioners voted for the constitution," says the paper. "More than 80% of blue collar workers voted against. Haves and have-nots were divided by worries about unemployment, currently at a five-year high of 10.2% - and the biggest single reason for a no vote - and globalisation. Geographically, the trend was clear: Paris, with its large number of "bobos" (bourgeois bohemians) and high-profile socialist mayor, voted massively in favour. Lyon, Strasbourg and Bordeaux were in the yes camp. But Marseille, Nice and Lille said no."

(Fear Eats The Soul, Guardian leader, Tuesday May 31st)

It seems to me that a very similar thing has happened to Europe that has happened in the US: the people voting Yes to the EU constitution have the same educated, urban profile as the people voting Democrat in the last US election. And in both cases they've been defeated and outnumbered by less tolerant, less affluent and educated, more anxious, irrational and xenophobic people from smaller towns and country areas. People who feel like outsiders to the political process are now, with splendid passive aggression, exacting their revenge by dealing it blows. In many cases these people are also outsiders to the process of wealth creation: strip away the blue coasts and the big cities and America loses the economic powerhouses which make it the world's predominant power. It's the same in Europe: the people now determining the shape of the continent are the insecure poor, unwilling to share their meagre income with Polish plumbers and Turkish bakers, but also unwilling to admit their economic dependence on the dynamic city folk and political elites they've just dealt a slap in the face.

Jean de La Fontaine would probably have been a Yes voter. France's greatest writer of fables describes how the townspeople of Abdera summoned the great doctor Hippocrates to treat the philosopher Democritus, believing him to be mad. Hippocrates arrived and conversed with Democritus. They turned out to be kindred spirits; it was the townspeople who were mad. But what do you do when the majority are mad or abnormal? In a relativist conception of the universe, is it even possible to call a majority "abnormal"? In a democracy, can a majority be "wrong"? Surely we have to oppose to La Fontaine's fable the famous Brecht poem which advises the East German government, when it tells the people they have to redouble their efforts to regain the government's confidence in them, to "dissolve the people and elect a new one"?

Everyone who's ever believed profoundly in either a principle or a project, only to see a majority of the people spurn or destroy it, has to question, from time to time, the very idea of democracy: the idea that the majority of the people knows best what's good for the world. We all know that big majorities of the people would, given referenda on the death penalty, war, abortion, immigration and other issues, often choose the most barbaric and atavistic options. There are all sorts of sensible measures you can propose to improve the situation: give the people better access to information, improve education, make the political elites more responsive, make them explain their visions better. But although the editorials won't say it, I will: majorities of the people, at any given time and in any given place, are likely to be mad, bad and wrong.

I mean, someone in my position more or less has to believe that. For twenty years I've been making records. They've been available in shops and played on the radio, but the people have almost completely spurned them. If the people are always right, it would seem an unavoidable conclusion that my records are just a million times worse than Kelly Clarkson's. So give me the choice between Democritus and democracy and, well, you can see how passive aggression might just make me vote for the "mad" philosopher.