Liberalism and democracy

Alain de Benoist

_12. 03. 2021


Liberal democracy is now in decline. This is evident not only from several recent essays, most of which have appeared in Anglo-Saxon countries, but from the rise of a new phenomenon to which a significant name has been given: illiberal democracy. Like the rise of populism, the emergence of “illiberal democracies” is a new phenomenon that testifies to the exhaustion of the parliamentary and representative system in favour of a form of democracy that is both more sovereign and more respectful of the popular will.
The term “illiberal democracy” is obviously ambiguous and it will certainly not be disputed that it can lead in some cases to purely authoritarian regimes, just as it may be a sign of a powerful renewal of democracy. But what exactly does that mean?
Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracy as a doctrine that separates the classical exercise of democracy from the principles of the rule of law. It is a form of democracy where popular sovereignty and election continue to play an essential role, but where there is no hesitation in deviating from certain liberal principles (constitutional norms, individual freedoms, separation of powers, etc.) if circumstances require it. This results in a rejection of individualism and the “language of rights,” a rejection of Kantian visions of “perpetual peace,” and thus a rejection of an important part of the Enlightenment legacy.
The political scientist Sylvain Kahn even talks about an “orbanisation” of Europe. Indeed, it was Viktor Orban, the Hungarian Prime Minister since May 2010, who has been constantly re-elected by an absolute majority since then, who first openly claimed this label in a speech given in 2014 at the Fidesz party summer university: “The Hungarian nation is not an aggregate of individuals,” he declared, “but a community that we must organize, strengthen and also raise. In this sense, the new state that is being built is not a liberal state but an illiberal state.” He added that “we must understand systems that are not Western, that are not liberal, and yet that make some nations successful.”
Orban argues that the Hungarian people and European nations should stand together against what puts their common values in danger. He notices that liberal democracy “has not been able to compel governments to focus on the defense of national interests, to protect public wealth and to save the country from debts”. He also observes that democracy is not necessarily liberal: “One can be a democrat even without being liberal.” In September 2017, Viktor Orban told the Hungarian Parliament that the adoption by Central European countries of “Western liberalism would mean spiritual suicide for Central Europeans”.
For taking these positions, Orban has of course provoked the wrath of the Brussels Commission, George Soros and all that the world has of liberals. His answer: “We will not be a colony! We did not accept the Vienna diktat of 1848, we then opposed Moscow in 1956 and 1990. Today, we will not allow anyone to dictate our conduct.”
The causes of the rise of “illiberalism” are obvious, and in many ways reflect those that explain the success of populist parties. First of all, they consist in the fact that the liberal democracies everywhere have turned into financial oligarchies that are cut off from the people: they are marked by inefficiency, political impotence, corruption, parties being transformed into mere machines to get elected, technocracy, short-termism, etc. To this observation is added another, more serious one: in liberal democracies, nations and peoples have lost the means to defend their interests. So what separates and even opposes liberalism and democracy?
Democracy implies the sovereign power of the demos or, if one prefers, popular sovereignty as a constituent power. Democracy is the form of government that meets the principle of the identity of the views of the rulers and the governed, the primary identity being that of a people who actually exist as a political unit. All citizens belonging to this political unity are formally equal.
The principle of democracy is not that of the natural equality of men among themselves, but that of the political equality of all citizens. “We are not born equal,” writes Hannah Arendt, “we become equal as members of a group, by virtue of our decision to guarantee each other equal rights.” The “competence” to participate in public life has no other source than being a citizen: the voting is based on the “one citizen, one vote” rule, not on the “one man, one vote” rule. In democracy the people do not express by their vote ideas that would be more “true” than others. However, they do express their preferences as well as their support for or rejection of their leaders. As Antoine Chollet rightly writes, “in democracy, the people are neither wrong nor right, but they decide.” This is the very foundation of democratic legitimacy. That is why the question of who is a citizen – and who is not – is the fundamental question of any democratic practice. That is why the territorial boundaries of a political unit are so essential.
Liberalism is quite different. While the political is neither a “sphere” nor an area separate from others, but a basic dimension of any human society or community, liberalism is a doctrine that politically divides society into a number of “spheres” and claims that the “economic sphere” must be made autonomous from political power, either for reasons of efficiency (the market works optimally only if nothing interferes with its “natural” functioning), or for “anthropological” reasons. The economy, originally seen as the realm of necessity, thus becomes the ultimate realm of freedom.
Redefined in liberal terms, democracy is no longer the regime that enshrines the sovereignty of the people, but the one that “guarantees human rights”. Human rights overrule the sovereignty of the people to the point that sovereignty is only respected if it does not contradict them. The exercise of democracy is thus submitted to a number of conditions, starting with that of respecting the “inalienable rights” that any individual would possess by virtue of his very existence. Combined with the “rule of law” that has become the insurmountable horizon of our time, democracy turns into a movement towards an ever greater equality of conditions. This equality, which should result from a free confrontation of rights, is understood only as a synonym for uniformity. The rule of law dissolves politics under the corrosive effect of the multiplication of rights. As Marcel Gauchet says, “being invoked over and over again, human rights end up paralyzing democracy.”
Failing to recognise the validity of any democratic decision that could undermine liberal principles or the ideology of human rights, liberalism has never accepted that the will of the people must always be respected. Distrustful of the people, it is also wary of the popular vote. Liberalism has tried to stop its extension, especially in France, where liberals have been more marked than elsewhere by a rationalist tradition that has led them to disregard the public opinion.
Since democracy is first and foremost a “cratie” (kratos), liberalism can only seek to limit it because it distrusts the power of the people as it does any power. To the equality of citizens, it therefore opposes the freedom of individuals. The key is then to limit power (hence the insistence on the legislative, executive and judicial “separation of powers” and the need for “counter-powers”) and, through this limitation, to limit authority – without seeing that democracy cannot do without authority.
It is now easier to understand how liberalism is inherently apolitical. It is already so in its general conception of man. For liberalism, man is not a political and social being whose motto could be inter homines esse, but an economic being (Homo œconomicus) separated from his fellows and seeking to maximise his interest ever more. It is so in its adherence to free trade, which implies the exclusion of any form of political authority (its utopian nature results precisely from the impossibility to completely isolate economic exchange from the power relations, which prevents it from working “unhampered”). Its conception of the practice of government draws on the very Saint-Simonian way in which it seeks to bring the government of men down on the administration of things, confirming its hope to “neutralise” political issues by reducing them to technical issues. The technique itself is considered eminently “neutral” – which it is obviously not. It fails to see that even if the technique were only an instrument, the question as to who uses it and in the service of whom, would arise immediately. By reducing government to governance, i.e. the implementation of technical skills subject to administrative management alone, liberalism belongs to what Jean-Claude Milner has rightly called the “politics of things.”
But Carl Schmitt makes the important point that any depoliticised society is condemned to become “the servant of a politically active foreign people.” This allows us to return to our original subject. For as long as stability prevails, formal legal and constitutional rules are easily followed. But as soon as the circumstances become uncertain and the threats become so great that we do not face the question of how to live but that of how to survive, in short, as soon as one enters an emergency situation, the time for a decision has come. The usual standards are unsuitable for anything unforeseen. As Carl Schmitt writes, it is the state of exception that reveals the identity of the sovereign: the sovereign is the one who “decides in an exceptional situation.” Obviously, decisionism is the natural adversary of liberalism, which considers that constitutional provisions alone are sufficient to organise power.
It is certainly no coincidence that illiberal democracies are beginning to multiply at a time when the European Union is breaking down because of the migration crisis. At a time of mass immigration, it is rediscovered that every human community “inevitably finds itself confronted with the problem of its daily anthropological cohesion” (Jean-Claude Michéa), that is, the problem of the control of the conditions of its own social reproduction. The economic and financial crisis, and economic globalisation, followed by the migration crisis, have given rise to a sense of urgency, especially in countries whose historical imaginations remain haunted by the memory of the Ottoman invasions and which do not want to have imposed on them today a “multicultural” model that they consider a total failure. The rise of illiberal democracies testifies to the spread of this feeling, which is linked to the deployment of an existential threat to the freedom, identity or way of life of citizens – especially since, from an illiberal perspective, democracy can only be conceived within a national framework.
Schmitt was not wrong to say that a democracy is all the more democratic, the less it is liberal. The liberal theory claims that a good constitutional order is sufficient to allow its members to live their lives the way they like without having to endure government meddling. The friend/enemy dialectic could thus be overcome. But this theory is shattered from the moment an enemy that poses an existential threat to us appears. The political then regains its rights. A political society that gives up on power and sovereignty no longer has anything political. It can only give up on its primary mission, which is to guarantee the conditions of its self-preservation. Liberal democracies are simply unable to deal with the urgency of the challenges and the magnitude of the threats. The time of illiberal democracy has come.

(This article is an abridged version of the article Liberalisme et democratie published in the French journal Elements).