Elucidating Ellul: On Democracy

The term “democracy” is used for an incredibly diverse array of ideas. For some, “democratic” means “has elections.” For others, it means “the people have the power.” For others, it means “representation in Congress.” Still for others, it means “non-totalitarian.” Depending on the referent, one might nod or frown.

With the exception of the last referent, “democracy” understood generally isn’t any sure protection against horrible events. Gangs may occasionally conduct elections of who leads the group, but this is hardly relevant to what the gang does to others! As Jacques Ellul puts it:

“…concentration camps, arbitrary police methods, and torture are only secondary differences between dictatorship and democracy, depending on the degree of both the government’s cleverness and the acceleration of the movement. We should be forever concerned with the means used by the state, the politicians, our group, ourselves. This should be the principal content of our political reflections.”  (The Political Illusion, 239)

“Democratic processes,” at least as popularly conceived in the modern nation-state context, is no guarantee against violence and social injustice. And it is not necessarily a fundamental difference between more totalitarian state regimes. (As it’s been said, “Hitler was elected.”)

The “political illusion” is, once again, the illusion of control –  the idea that the political process as it exists puts the citizenry “in the driver’s seat.” Hence our constant fuddling with the use of “we” in talking about U.S. interventions, legislation, or elections. (Did “we” really “bomb that middle-eastern country”? Or was it one person, or one group that acted unilaterally?) One election cycle after another is a constant reminder that putting “our candidate” in office to represent our will is simply a pipe dream. Was Obama acting on Democrats’ behalf when he raised the limit of kills by wind-farms for endangered birds, or when increasing drone warfare overseas? Was Trump really acting on behalf of his voters when taxing Italian cheese 25% in a tariff order from last week, or crushing midwestern farmers’ ability to sell soybeans to foreign markets? Is the NSA’s spying apparatus through personal computing video-cams and cell phones a strategy implemented through “democratic means”? Of course not. The state inherently has proprietary power that does not allow certain checks, democratic “planning” or not.

“…I believe that the formula of democratizing planning, or of bringing together politics and technique within a planning system is a characteristic example of a political illusion, of empty verbiage. It is a consolation that one gives oneself when confronted by the real growth of this planning power, and of the consequent questioning of democracy.”  (258)

What then? Ellul, in typical sociological, anarchist, and subversive fashion, suggests doing whatever can instigate such checks and power, decentralize concentrations of power, and destabilize the hegemonic structures of society:

“The only way to hold the state within its framework and functions, to return true reality to the conflict of ‘private life versus political life,’ to dissipate the political illusion, is to develop and multiply tensions. This is as true for the individual as for the political body. Only tension and conflict form personality, not only on the loftiest, most personal plane, but also on the collective plane.” (210)

Jesus of Nazareth was notoriously good that at this – even pitting “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Mt 10:35). He created a community that in the second century brought together stone-cutters to Roman senators to soldiers to sex workers, all talking and drinking together at the same evening symposium (see Kreider, Patient Ferment). To those “in the Spirit,” this was a miracle, a revelation, concrete proof that God was doing something new on this planet like never before. (It was also a bit awkward!) To those outside looking in, it was downright disturbing; the boundaries of the social order were breaking down – and yet, there was something remarkably attractive about it.

“Multiplying tensions” is obviously not the same as being divisive and exclusive. Just the opposite: it was this inclusiveness and unity that multiplied tensions. For instance, in the early church the civic leaders could no longer alienate the “other” (the Christians) as cannibals and be complacent under the authorities; they were now partaking of the Lord’s Table and saw the “blood” and “body” being consumed itself; something was amiss in the popular stereotypes about the Christ-followers. Tension is created when sacred cows are pushed over not in a reckless and uncritical fashion, but in a kingdom  – a loving, subtle, and intentional – fashion.

“Developing and multiplying tensions” largely involves revealing exploitative relationships that were once invisible. It does what Ellul’s French contemporary Michel Foucault did so well (too well): shine a flashlight on the agendas of power and coercion that remain in the dark – the twisted relationships that everyone is afraid to talk about. In 19th-20th century France, this meant pointing out statist incursions on the rest of society:

“The army can’t play the same role as it used to. As a result we have a reinforcement of the police and an overloading of the penal system; these now have to take on by themselves the whole burden of performing all these functions. Systematic police control of every quarter, the police stations, the courts (especially those dealing out summary judgments to those ‘caught in the act’), the prisons, the parole and probation systems, the whole system of controls involved in making children wards of court, the social welfare system, reform schools, all these must now perform, here in France, all the roles that used to be taken on by the army and colonisation in geographically relocating people and sending them abroad.” (Power/Knowledge, 17-18)

And on a more well-known subject, Foucault pulled back the curtain in front of the grotesque prison system:

“People tend to suppose that the prison was a kind of refuse-dump for criminals, a dump whose disadvantages became apparent during use…But…the prison was meant to be an instrument comparable with—and no less perfect than—the school, the barracks, or the hospital, acting with precision upon its individual subjects. The failure of the project was immediate, and was realized virtually from the start. In 1820 it was already understood that prisons, far from transforming criminals into honest citizens, serve only to manufacture new criminals and to drive existing criminals even deeper into criminality….delinquents turned out to be useful, in the economic domain as much as the political. Criminals come in handy.” (40)

Kingdom tension-building based on love also means dethroning another God of the West – not democracy, but uncritical capitalistic competition. The Romans were particularly competitive – which lead to the empire’s fall as much as its rise. Christ offered a different way, and it was a way that didn’t view each other and each other’s group as a threat. Rivalry had plagued God’s people for centuries before, and continued into the first century. It doesn’t work. We can maybe see why this is the case in some small, day-to-day scenarios – like when communication between spouses goes sour for three days because one competitive spouse was as sore loser at the last poker game. (Now just multiply this seemingly trivial situation to the aggregate human population and extent it out into the needs of our future world, and you can see the potential problems.)

Indeed, some sociologists and evolutionary theorists have recently argued that our species has finally reached a point where autonomous, natural-selection, survival-of-fittest competition in both ecology and economic societies is inhibitory of our survival, instead of beneficial. The long-run environmental crisis initiated by the Industrial Revolution and that has been accelerating ever since is a chief example. Nation-states with enough nukes to destroy half the solar system is another. Raw competitiveness served our species (and others) well for a good many millennia, but those days are coming to an end.

And from a Christian perspective, perhaps this is a good thing.

“The true response to external challenge is not forceful supremacy of one group over another, but invention of a new form, of new activities provoked by that tension. Engaged in competition, we are not experiencing authentic tension, as the aim is the exclusion or the elimination of one of the poles. In that case, development is unilateral.”  (219)