Freiheit und Demokratie (Freedom & Democracy) by John Smithin
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As promised, but somewhat belatedly, here are my more detailed thoughts on the discussion we had a couple of weeks ago about ‘Chinese election interference’ in Canada, public inquiries, and so on and so forth. I don’t personally think that these things are very serious per se, they are mainly just part of the chatter, narrative, media manipulation, political game-playing, etc. that is often used to distract the public from the real underlying issues (whatever these elusive concepts may be). Chinese election interference, for example, seems to be drawn from the same playbook as ‘Russian election interference’ in the USA a few years ago, and surely nobody takes official enquiries seriously? Several people have already mentioned that. TBH I have no idea whether the media cycle has already moved on from this or not (maybe to banks?) It surely will do so eventually - just as it has moved on from whatever it was that was being discussed so very seriously a month ago, six months ago, or a year ago. However, I think that our discussion did raise some interesting points in political philosophy which do merit attention and are of lasting interest. Having thought of them, I don’t want to forget them. So this is ‘just for me’ if you like, feel free to ignore!
As you all know, I am engaged in a long-term philosophical project which involves Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics and ‘Politics’ (i.e., political philosophy), but in that strict order. So, a first point, then, is simply that there cannot really be any truly coherent discussion of the latter until each of the other issues is settled. Nonetheless, ‘Politics’ will indeed eventually have to be addressed at one time or another, so here goes. (On the other hand, the so-called ‘politics’ that we see day-to-day in the media is far downstream from political philosophy itself. It is just the superficial froth on the surface of the working out of the historical process. It really does not signify anything. It will always be overtaken by events.) I think that this conversation was started at a breakfast meeting a couple of weeks ago with Randal Brown, Ronen Grunberg, John Moniz and John Smithin? (All of whom are members of the Aurora Philosophy Institute, or API). Randal was disappointed that everyone else did not seem to take it seriously enough, but nonetheless I am most grateful to him for bringing up the issue and his persistence. What else were folks concerned with? I think it was things like snowplows and sidewalks/driveways in Aurora? This is Canada in winter after all. Where is ‘global warming’ when you need it? Oh yes - I remember now - that was a couple of weeks previously, before the snow came. Randal stated that he is a big supporter of Freedom & Democracy (note that I have capitalized these two concepts). Also, that both Chinese election interference and the inaction of the government with respect to public inquiries, were somehow a threat to these things. Well we have already dealt with the issue of public inquiries, and (implicitly) the apparent decline nowadays of the various political and other institutions – so what is left? I would say that the following issues are important to think about:
(1) Is it possible to actually define terms like Freedom and Democracy? Is this just an instance of Nominalism - assigning ‘names’ to random collections of attributes. Or, do they represent real Universals. For example, as regards Nominalism, we are told that Western support for Ukraine, in the war currently going on there, is a question of ‘defending Democracy’. Now I make no moral judgements about these issues, nor do I wish to take sides, for the purpose of this argument, on the current conflict (that is not the role of political philosophy). But, as a matter of fact, Ukraine is a one-party state in which opposition parties are banned, the media is tightly controlled by the government, dissent is suppressed, the orthodox church has been dis-established, and it is claimed that minority rights are disregarded (e.g., language). Moreover, the entire population under the age of 60 is subject to enforced conscription. The war itself started, not in 2022, as we have been told by the media, but in 2014 when the Ukrainian army entered the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) in an attempt to prevent secession, i.e., the ‘will of the people’ in those jurisdictions. (This is similar to the origins of the US Civil War of 1861-1865. However, I should be careful to note that the DPR and LPR are not, as far I know, in favour of slavery!). I make no comment as to whether any or all of the policies of what we now call the ‘Collective West’ may, or may not, be justified on various grounds. However, I cannot see how they can be described as defending democracy, at least on any of the usual definitions.
(2) If it is possible to define Freedom & Democracy are they, in fact, compatible? From the point of view of political philosophy, and on the face of, it they are not. Traditionally, Freedom has the connotation of the protection of individual rights, and minority rights, whereas Democracy is the rule of the majority. So, what does it mean to defend/support both Freedom & Democracy? How is this possible? Here we are clearly going to get into the whole question of negative rights versus positive rights. The problem with a ‘positive right’, needless to say, is that it will always entail an obligation on someone else for enforcement, thereby impinging on their own rights.*
(3) Going back to the quotidian issue of Chinese election interference and popular democracy, some obvious points are that around 5% of the Canadian population is now of Chinese descent, that this is rising very rapidly, and that this population well may be concentrated in a few key ridings. No doubt very many of these individuals retain an interest in and/or allegiance to their country of origin, or to that of their parents and grandparents. In a ‘democracy’ why should they not? Some kind of ‘Chinese influence’ on Canadian politics is therefore inevitable and, indeed, may very well be entirely justified from the democratic point of view. Very similar remarks could be made with respect to any and all groups of new Canadians. (Geopolitically, also, many of the countries of origin of these persons are likely to be aligned with the PRC). What, therefore, are the implications of democracy, in this sense, in our modern world of open borders’?
(4) Is it possible to state that a condition of simultaneous Freedom & Democracy has ever obtained in Canada? Did this condition exist before the election of the present government and did it continue after they came to power? Did it exist after the imposition of the COVID restrictions (which were essentially by decree), and has it been restored today? Indeed, if these two things are not compatible how could such a situation ever be said to exist? Which of the two is more important? In more practical terms regarding the mechanisms of government, we should note Canada is actually (technically) a constitutional monarchy, and also that the present government happens to a be minority ‘representative’ government in which, nonetheless, the third political party has agreed not to challenge any of important decisions of the Executive. And, moreover, the Executive itself may be said to be heavily subject to foreign influence in the shape of various international organizations, alliances, and commitments. I do not doubt that this form of government may be also defensible on various grounds (such as ‘getting things done’), but again the point is that it bears very little relation to what is commonly understood as democracy. Also, in recent years, in particular, it has become clear that whether it can be called democratic or not, the current form of government (I do not refer here to any particular government or political party) does not place a high priority on individual freedom. More specifically this has become apparent in the areas of freedom to travel (including to foreign countries), access to employment, access to education, access to health care, freedom of speech, the right to conduct trade and commerce, and, perhaps most importantly, the right to make personal decisions about health care. Again, the point is that although one may very well legitimately be a supporter of any or all such measures that the authorities may impose (on the grounds of public health, law and order, group preferences with respect to the natural environment, and suchlike) surely such a stance is to defend some form of socialism or collectivism rather than ‘Freedom’?
(5) Finally, turning now to the origins of political philosophy (for example, in Aristotle), the modern world seems to have forgotten that democracy was never canvassed as the only possible form of political organization, and certainly not as actually a desirable form. Roughly speaking, as I understand it, the Aristotelian scheme was as follows:
Type of Government Pure Form Degenerate Form
Rule by one person Monarchy Tyranny
Rule by the few Aristocracy Oligarchy
Rule by ‘more than a few' Polity Democracy
The American ‘Founding Fathers’, to use a term that nowadays is probably entirely unacceptable in the contemporary USA, seemed to understand this well, and their proposed solution was a 'Constitutional Republic' which would combine (features of) each of the pure forms, including a President (Monarchy), Senate (Aristocracy) and Congress (Polity). There was never any question of democracy, which was seen by them as nothing more than mob rule. The only half-hearted concession to democracy (which in retrospect seems to have been greatly mistaken because of its negative social effects) was to allow the Southern States to count 3/4 of the African-American population** for the purposes of their proportionate representation in collective bodies. Ironically, the effect of this was to actually to preserve the institution of slavery for a further ‘four score years and ten’ after the opening hostilities of the American revolution in 1775. Slavery was only abolished after a bloody Civil War, to which we have already made reference, in the 1860s.
By the same token, the English monarchy after 1688 (British monarchy after 1707, and Canadian monarchy today) was explicitly a constitutional monarchy (albeit without a written constitution as such). Again, this supposedly combines features of each of the pure forms. NB: There is now a written constitution in Canada and a soi-disant ‘Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ which, however, many feel became effectively a dead letter after only 40 years, in 2022. Therefore, when people in North America talk about ‘our democracy’ this is a highly ambiguous term, and is often entirely incomprehensible to people in other parts of the world.
* I think I should mention that I been using this locution, with the plural ‘their’, for more than 60 years, before anyone outside of the Frankfurt School had given any attention whatsoever to pronouns. I seem to recall that it was common usage on the South Coast of England, where I grew up. It is not intended as a concession to ‘political correctness’ (PC).
** This usage does defer to PC or ‘wokeness’. In this case, it would have been an entirely intelligible and accurate descriptor in the 1775 – 1789 period, even if not actually in use at the time. It is not entirely clear that this is the case today.