In his now not-often-read The Evolution of Political Thought, C. Northcote Parkinson was “considering the question of how long a democratic phase of government may be expected to last”, correctly noting, as did Hayek in The Road To Serfdom, that throughout history democracies tend to devolve, or perhaps dissolve is a better word, into dictatorships.
Tend to itself is the wrong modifier for the verb. Leaving it off gives a more accurate picture. Let’s hear first from Parkinson, then we’ll pose a question afterwords. (With my paragraphications to make blog reading easier; the excerpt is too long to stick into blockquotes, which on some browsers render in italics; instead, there are horizontal lines; pp 239–241.)
In considering the question of how long a democratic phase of government may be expected to last, we can appeal to reason, to history and to recent experience. Merely theoretical discussion would lead us to expect one of two things. Either the proletariat would establish a socialist state or it would fail as against middle-class opposition.
If it succeeded, the State would acquire such an accumulation of centralised power — political, economic, religious and cultural — that some of the former upper class would be goaded into revolt. Supposing the conspiracy or rising should attract any measure of support, in the name of freedom, the strongest personality in the government would make himself dictator during the emergency: thereafter, the rising crushed, he would remain dictator as a precaution against any future threat of the same kind.
In the opposite case, supposing that the socialist police state has not been firmly established, the middle classes might rally to protect their lives and property. In the struggle they will appoint a leader or more probably allow the leader to appoint himself. By the time the conflict ends in a middle-class victory, the leader will have become dictator; and he must remain dictator, this time in a capitalist police state, to prevent the proletariat rising again.
Civil War of this kind seems likely to produce dictatorship in any case; nor do dictatorships of different origin differ from each other as much as might be supposed. For the dictator, in the last resort, is not so much a master of intrigue and cruelty as a man with sufficient moral courage to open fire.
It is sometimes thought that the invention of automatic weapons has ended forever the effectiveness of the mob, putting all the trump cards in the hands of whatever government there is. But revolutions are not brought about, have never been brought about, by weapons; nor is it by weapons that a rising is suppressed.
Governments which collapse when mobbed are usually lacking not weapons but courage. At some point in a situation of growing disorder someone must give the order to fire or charge. In a capital city — with the certainty that half the casualties will be innocent bystanders — this requires a fair amount of courage, it is easiest for a foreigner, a Prince Rupert, a Napoleon, a General Dyer; and easier still if the troops are also foreign — Scottish mercenaries in Paris, Swiss mercenaries in Rome or German mercenaries in Algiers.
But the risk is considerable, for the man who takes the responsibility may never be forgiven by the people and may easily be disowned by his own side. That is why a feeble government will allow riot and bloodshed to go on for days while its leaders twitter among themselves about humanity. Some twenty cartridges will disperse the average crowd but a man like Napoleon does not stop at that; he cheerfully uses artillery. The smoke has hardly cleared before he finds himself dictator.
Once a man has become dictator he cannot, usually, abdicate. If he does, the enemies he has made will kill him. Sulla resigned, it is true, and lived for a year. But Julius Caesar could not have resigned — he was murdered even while still in office. Pompey could not have resigned, nor Cromwell, nor Napoleon. It is the knowledge of his own danger that drives the dictator on to eliminate his opponents. Nor does it very much matter whether he began, like Julius Caesar, as a democratic leader, or like Sulla as the saviour of the oligarchs.
Once in office he must rule as he can. That is why Gandhi was supremely right in maintaining, as he did, that an egalitarian democracy cannot be achieved by force but only by persuasion. Once violence has been used, the feelings aroused will make further violence unavoidable. And in a state of tension and fear the party led by one will always (given anything like equal chances) defeat the party led by a committee. There are therefore abstract reasons for doubting whether socialism, as a phase in the decline of democracy, can be expected to last for long. There are abstract reasons again for supposing that it will lead to dictatorship.
Parkinson goes on to ask, “Does history, generally, bear out this conclusion?” The answer is yes. For example, “In ancient Greece the examples of democracy turning into dictatorship after a phase of socialism were so numerous that the Greek thinkers felt justified in regarding that sequence as almost a law of nature.”
Why? “Gandhi…says plainly that democracy cannot work if the voter’s chief aim is to benefit himself. In his view (and he is obviously right) no good can come of the violence which a state confiscation of private wealth must involve.”
What struck and stays with me is Parkinson’s the courage to fire on the crowd. Given our innumerable riots and other violent disturbances, it is obvious this courage has been lacking. It won’t always be. When it comes, it will be instantly recognizable and it will be clear to all that our democracy has at long last come to its end.
Here is the basis of our question (of which it would be best to read the whole of the Chapter from which the quotations are drawn): “The democracy that does not fail through socialist violence fails through mere incompetence; and through an incompetence which has become notorious, public and measurable.”
The question is this: from where will the dictatorship arise? Out of socialism and thus from displaced elites, or via middle class dissatisfaction? The Left is now screeching (and screaming) that Trump is a manifestation of the latter, though his mettle has not yet been tested: no crowds have been fired upon. Contrasted to those fears are the true observation that the State has been acquiring “such an accumulation of centralised power — political, economic, religious and cultural — that some of the former upper class would be goaded into revolt.” Trump does not fill that bill, though he is from the upper class; yet with the reins of power he is certainly not displaced.
My bet is on a reaction to socialism, since in the States the middle class is dispersed over too wide an area to conglomerate and because, as just said, the middle class can elect its leader who can hold power without direct violence. It’s not that Trump won’t fire on the rabble, but that doing so while he has the elected and Constitutional power to do so would not make him dictator.
Thus, a reaction to socialism. We have breathing space of at least four years, and more likely eight to ten. After that, the most natural thing is to look for a military coup to some outrage that comes too quickly after a string of power-grabbing outrages. Our friend John Zmirak suggests an outlawing of Christianity.
What do you say?