Democracy and Its Discontents

Democracy and Its Discontents

In 2010, Ken Minogue penned his last full-length book The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life. As fond as I am of democracy I am still inclined to (begrudgingly) call it a critical tour de force. It’s a full-on assault on the assumptions, procedures, intricacies, and inner workings of democracy, both in theory and practice, and it makes a pro-democratic person like me stop and scratch their heads more than a few times. I came away from it with the same thoughts I had after reading Plato’s seemingly “elitist” political sympathies in The Republic: Unless those who parade democracy as the solution to most of our ills or assume it is the next logical step in our political evolution listen to critics, democracy will be the worse for it. It is in that spirit Minogue warns skeptical readers: “learning from our mistakes is a basic precept of prudence, but it only works if we understand what these mistakes are”[199].

So how does democracy erode our moral life and make us servile? First, some definitions. Minogue takes our moral life to be the “dimension of our inner experience in which we deliberate about our obligations to parents, children, employers, strangers, charities, sporting associations, and other elements of our world”[4]. The importance here, as we will see, is on deliberate—both with others and with ourselves. And what of democracy? Democracy is a “constitution in which public policy reflects the will of the people”[26]. Third, servility is “dependence of mind, as exhibited in allowing the beliefs or the passions of others to determine one’s own beliefs and passions”[5]. These abstract concepts set the stage for Minogue’s somewhat complicated narrative.

For Minogue, our moral lives, democracy, and servility all smash together in what he calls “the politico-moral”—a place where the fuzzy boundary between between politics and morals is completely dissolved, where public and private issues are one and the same. Everything that concerns an individual or group of individuals can rightfully claim some public or political space. The politico-moral world is, in essence, a denial that there is any conflict between “politics and moral goodness”—between something that is “morally imperative” and something “necessary in the national interest”[215]. Indeed, the essence of the book is the idea that democracy, combined with a collapse of the public-private distinction, can only result in the worst forms of micromanagement and thus totalitarianism. Our inner lives, being one and the same with our outer or public lives, have become managed by the will of the people; our own decision-making capacity—our ability to adjust, deliberate, correct, and grow—is stifled by the dark cloud of governmental overreach and bureaucratic management. Minogue seems unhappy that the government sermonizes at all, telling us smoking is bad, reading a book to your kids at night is good, and drinking too much soda or alcohol is unhealthy.

Whither the individual

One might well respond here, “All well and good but this whole thesis is propped up by an unrealistic notion of individualism, i.e., a belief that at one point in our civilizational story we had a private life completely cut off from the community.” Where do we find this individual? Minogue offers a persuasive, if a bit indulgent, reading of the history of individualism. I think he is right to point out that individualism never stood for the kind of faux-individualism we think of today where, turning John Donne on his head, every man is an island unto himself, where man is nothing more than a selfish producer and consumer. Individualism, in Minogue’s story, wrongly came to be associated with selfishness. This was never the case in fact and was more of a straw man set up by collectivists, socialists, the usual suspects, etc. to decry the evils of capitalism—or so Minogue argues.

Since the individual is always already situated within a social atmosphere, there was never an atomistic and tetherless individual. This much he will give the collectivist. But rather than cede ground to those who proudly turn the descriptive claim “we are social beings” into a normative one, Minogue’s reading of history seems to collapse the individualist-collectivist gap completely, arguing that individualism was never a denial of sociality or the situatedness of a given person within a community, but rather something totally different. It would be better to describe individualism as a positive achievement within a community rather than a negative claim about the relationship between the individual and his or her community. Our inescapable attachments to “family, firm, school, club, regiment, friends, state… rules out of court any suggestions that the individual is a ‘social atom’”[173]. However, Minogue goes on, “this curious error leads to another mistake. It is to imagine that ‘man is a social being’ because of his relationship with the thing called ‘society’”[173]. Though individualism and the community are forever intertwined, they are nonetheless different and distinct concepts.

For Minogue, then, individualism is a fundamentally different experience than “custom, rank, and religion.” At some point in 16th century Europe, he says, “the recognition of difference” came to be seen as “has having a value of its own.” This difference, due to a  curiosity and skepticism fed by contact with other cultures, can be further seen in the distinction between a concern “not only with the question of whether such-and-such an act was right or wrong [according to custom, rank, or religion], but also with what the act might reveal about his own character.”i  This concern with one’s character and views—and not just one’s societal role or religion—was a significant development in Western history. Its only logical consequence is the clash of opinions, the breaking down of barriers, and the building of new, better ways of thinking embodied in the liberal tradition of Mill some years later.

Minogue here seems unconvincing in his account of individualism, if only because pointing out that individualism was never stark or pure or selfish individualism, as some like to think it was, is still left sitting awkwardly next to our inescapably social situation. If we are always always rooted and thinking within a community, what might independence of mind mean for us? The only argument I can see that supports Minogue’s view of individualism is that its extreme opposite, radical collectivism, tends to crowd out individuality—the ability for someone to make a name for themselves either through dissent from the norm or great achievement. That we might always “groupthink” in the weak sense of the word, is true enough: we cannot escape our environment. But I think Minogue fears the stronger versions of groupthink, those embodied by totalitarian movements where one’s own want of discussion, deliberation, and dissent is totally and utterly destroyed for the sake of a higher cause. There is no pluralism. Although atomistic individualism is and always was a delusion, collectivism and its attendant evils, Minogue seems to say, is not.

If democracy ends up in some sort of collective groupthink we can very much expect our lives to not only be micromanaged but relatively dull and uninteresting. Violent and anxious too perhaps. Individuality, in short, must be retained in some degree—even as a useful fiction—if we are to avoid servility, bowing down to some collective individuality or cause. The best metaphor I think is offered by John Lachs: we are a “community of individuals”—nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps it is a tension, but it is a tension Minogue worries democracy is ill-equipped to hold steady. One need only look around to see that Minogue’s worry over the stronger forms of groupthink have been dominating the political scene as of late. It is not at all an exaggeration to say that many people’s identities are defined by the political causes they take part in or disagree with.

Culture precedes politics

The whole point of this digression into individualism was to enhance Minogue’s fear that democracy can potentially crowd out forms of individuality—something he thinks is not only important but in grave danger as of late. He is increasingly worried about the reduction of individual choice—and thus the room to make errors—in a democratic way of life. Minogue is concerned by how we might come to see the difference between public concerns versus private ones thus realizing when one half of the equation seems to be crowding out the other.

One should be careful here, though. I think Minogue would happily admit that issues cannot and should not be deemed off the political table in an a priori fashion; there is no way to sort issues into baskets labeled “private” and baskets labeled “public” before the issues are brought to our attention. Rather, Minogue’s claim strikes me as recognizing the fact that culture precedes politics—that we shouldn’t always look to legislators and judges to make our decisions but spend more of our time attempting to convince our peers. The growing resignation with regard to this convincing in our society can be seen on both sides of the aisle, where the most one can hope for is that a particular candidate is of one’s own political persuasion and thus will enact all of one’s positions in the stroke of a pen. It’s true that the stroke of a pen has often been for good, and often has been a stroke against the grain of cultural feeling, but we should be careful not to make a habit or principle of this sort of political action—if only because the pen works easily well for both sides.

The question that remains, then, is how democracy makes us servile; how it actively “erodes” our moral lives. “To be even a little servile,” Minogue says, “is to think that whatever is frustrating must be a form of oppression, from which liberation alone will provide the release.” But liberation, as Minogue sees it in the modern form, is external liberation: money, food, rights, etc.

The search for liberation is a rejection of the responsibilities of freedom in favor of a release into the irresponsibility of rights. And a right is irresponsible because it is a legally entrenched liberty that does not contain within itself the limitations instinctive in a free society.

Connecting this up with his view of individualism we might say that individualism as he understands its history, unlike the modern search for more and more liberation, always had duty, responsibility, and obligation riding shotgun. It was precisely because the individual was rooted in the community that they had a felt obligation to others in that community. The more radical forms of collectivism, in their search for more rights, more freedoms, more liberties, impose no obligation or duty upon the people. Servility is “the abdication of moral autonomy and independent agency in favor either of some unreflective collective allegiance or of some inevitably partial and personal impulse for illicit satisfaction… [it] transfers responsibility away from the actor as a moral agent, and toward some abstract social condition…”[192]. We should be cautious about applying this characterization willy-nilly, but it nonetheless is true that the loudest voices on the political scene seem to fit nicely within this description—even, as Minogue has said before, those who are more sympathetic to i.e., conservatives and libertarians.

Crowding out the morality of the individual

I should end this summary treatment of Minogue’s wonderful and challenging book with a quote I think sums up Minogue’s worries.

The evident problem with democracy today is that the state is pre-empting—or “crowding out,” as the economists say—our moral judgments. Rulers are adding moral judgments to the expanding schedule of powers they exercise. Nor does the state deal merely with principles. It is actually telling its subjects to do very specific things. Yet decisions about how we live are what we mean by “freedom,” and freedom is incompatible with a moralizing state. That is why I am provoked to ask the question: can the moral life survive democracy?

Minogue is worried about a time in which we no longer have to ask whether something is right or wrong—deliberating with ourselves and others along the way—but a time when we only have to ask whether something is legal or illegal. While an increasing concern for the suffering and pain of others is invariably a good thing, the codification of this concern into laws to be ruled over by social justice tribunals may not be, to take just one example. As he says, overstating the case a bit: “To legislate opinion is itself to create a servile relationship. Codification of this kind destroys the freedom to respond to each other (within the law) as we choose.”ii

Democrats learning from skeptics of democracy

One can, I think, take Minogue with a grain of salt and nonetheless come away with a sense that democracy is indeed in rough waters. This inevitably gives rise to questions about whether democracy is the road we wish to continue to go down. One wonders: Would some other political framework ease Minogue’s mind? Or is it just a change of heart and mind in the citizenry? Was Plato right about democracy being both the safest bet and the most volatile and dangerous compared to an aristocracy or monarchy? Yet even in the face of all the questions and op-eds signing the death certificate of democracy, I think it is good to remember the words of Fisher Ames on the subject: monarchy sails well but sinks quickly; democracy sails poorly—we always have water in the boat—but rarely ever sinks. Democratic theorists like John Dewey and Benjamin Barber, too, seem to calm our worries a little when they argue democracy is a relatively new phenomenon. Most political arrangements, they say, have been given the chance to unfold and develop over hundreds if not thousands of years; democracy has been given no more than two hundred—if that—before it is denounced and trashed as unworkable and largely harmful. This half-hearted, hopeful counterpoint to Minogue’s worries strikes me as a middle ground between the overly pessimistic and the starry-eyed optimists.

Dewey and Barber emphasize that arguments against democracy as democracy currently is, offer no argument against democracy as it might be. We might link up the tradition of supposed anti-democratic thinkers from Plato to Minogue with pro-democratic theorists like Dewey and Barber by seeing the former as giving us ways we can better avoid the pitfalls of democracy—pitfalls, as Plato pointed out, that exist in every regime. And pitfalls that Dewey and Barber are not naive to either.

There are three useful takeaways from Minogue’s conservative critique of democracy. The first has to do with individualism and the private/public distinction; the second with the kind of language we use; and the third, only tangentially related, has to do with democracy as something more than a procedural mechanism for electing leaders and casting ballots.

Individualism and the Public/Private Split

If individualism isn’t the Smithian strawman some make it out to be, what place does it have in modern life? Part of the issue is that we no longer live in tiny, self-contained communities anymore. We live in a world in which we hear of some far away tragedy within seconds and have access to the suffering of people hundreds if not thousands of miles away at the tip of our fingers. The state of third-world countries as well as the worst parts of our own bear down harshly on our minds. This may seem beside the point, but, as Mary Midgley points out, we can’t reverse this trend of awareness; we can’t somehow delude ourselves into thinking we don’t know how the rest of the world lives or how even those in the town over are suffering immensely. Even in this light, Minogue’s point that our moral lives include those inner experiences where we reflect upon, among other things, our relationship to “strangers” and “other elements of our world”—i.e. those worse off than us in a bad way—seems to miss just how little our local affiliations mean to us and how much more the world writ large looms large in our minds, for better or worse.

This isn’t, however, meant to launch us into an opposite ideal, to some sort of “love of humanity in general” attitude. It is only to point out that it seems quaint to talk of local affiliations at all anymore. It was under the auspices of this new global consciousness that individualism was assaulted so harshly and deemed little more than selfishness. Deliberation about whether we should buy the new TV or iPhone or go out to eat used to have little to do with others; what weighs on our consciousness now is the idea that we could save that money, or that we might not need that new TV or iPhone, or even the idea that we don’t want to contribute to a world in which the conditions that said TV or iPhone are made in are so horrid and humiliating for workers that it’s not worth it. Even more, the vast connectedness of our world seems to have given rise to a sort of pseudo-morality in which we can toss our hat in the ring of this or that cause with very little consequence. “Outrage porn” and virtue signaling are apt descriptions of the current state of moral discourse: retweet this, repost that, congratulate on a cause well won, repeat. One need only wait for the next lion to get shot by a rich, white dentist to see what I’m getting at.

The standard Leftist response to this new heightened awareness may not be conducive to effective political action, but neither is the retreat into the old forms of individuality where the strategy seems to be essentially one of ignoring the the sufferings of others not immediately in our social bubble. As Dewey summed up: “the problem is seen to be essentially that of creation of a new individualism as significant for modern conditions as the old individualism at its best was for its day and place.”

While individualism may be a worn out term—a hangover from a time where we embraced such harsh dualisms like individual and society—what lies beneath it is not. Modern philosophers have updated the term in the form of privacy and squared it with something we call the public. I intend no solution to this problem that has occupied theorist and citizen alike for years, but only wish to point out that Minogue’s claim that we should worry about our new “politico-moral” world is indeed a legitimate one. Rather than insist upon a harsh divide between the two, we might find it useful to simply reflect upon the distinction itself and ask ourselves questions like: are my frustrations due to something bigger, something like oppression? Is my oppression systemic or structural or merely local? Is this an issue that I believe to be a national conversation? Is this a priority? Am I ready to subject my views to the whole of the nation and be ready for the consequences of such? The latter type of question leads directly into a discussion of something else we might take from Minogue’s critique.

Rights Talk

One of the reasons why the politico-moral world is so destabilizing is that the language of morality doesn’t fit well with the language of politics—at least democratic politics. What, we might ask, is the result of a clash between Person A who holds their truths to have the seal of moral certainty and Person B who believes their truths have the seal of moral certainty? For Mill’s “experiments in living” to be actual experiments—for the marketplace of ideas to function properly—we cannot go around believing we are morally certain about a great many issues. I agree with Richard Rorty that the goal of a civic education in a democracy, in whatever form that takes, is to try and make people as wishy-washy as possible about most issues; lead them to believe that they can compromise on matters they previously thought were uncompromisable.iv We can not, Rorty seems to suggest, draw our lines in the sand so far away from our actual selves that nobody else can even move without violating something we won’t budge an inch on.

The result of framing everything in terms of moral necessity, as Herbert Butterfield pointed out, is nothing less than a battle between “giant organized systems of self-righteousness” where one side is only ever too happy to see the other side fall or be demonized—where “each [is] only too delighted to find that the other is wicked—each only too glad that the sins of the other give it pretext for still deeper hatred.” This is the inevitable consequence of a system in which everyone is taught the virtues of honesty, speaking one’s truth, and sticking to one’s guns, as opposed to the virtues of compromise and flexibility. Where changing one’s mind is called flip-flopping and compromise is seen as lacking conviction—where we do not separate virtues appropriate to one’s private life and those appropriate to politics—democracy will backslide into infuriated meaninglessness.

But it isn’t just the language of morality that causes this destabilizing effect, but the language of rights—which, as one theorist recently called it, is “the language of no compromise.” The phrase “irresponsibility of rights” is important for Minogue in several respects. The idea that rights everywhere and always impose some duty upon others is hardly ever considered by those on the Left with their constant fight for more and more of them. Though, to be fair, the idea that rights impose a responsibility on people is often overstated by the Right and only on certain issues—guns, of course, we have a pretty much unquestioned right to and every tragic misuse is just an unfortunate thing we as a society ought to take with a stiff upper lip because, well, tragedy happens. Regardless, one can imagine a country with plenty of rights, plenty of mutual suspicion and animosity, and no freedom. Rights are certainly not a “more of a good thing” situation, as can be imagined by the current conflict between the right to free speech and the right to not be humiliated or harmed by someone else’s speech.

The irresponsibility of rights links up nicely with the irresponsibility of appeals to morality as mentioned above. Where every clash of opinions is immediately framed in terms of rights or morality, no deliberation or conversation can take place. Where every “It’s my right to say what I want” is met with “Sure, but you don’t have a right to harm others with your speech” no solution can be met, much less some miniscule fragment of common ground staked out.

Democracy as Associated Living

I think Dewey got a lot of things right, but one of his better contributions—by no means original to him—was to explain more fully what democracy as a way of life meant. He meant this explanation to stand in as a moral ought over and against the idea of democracy as simply a way we vote for our leaders every now and again. Dewey knew, like many of those in the “rights counterculture,” that rights and high-minded systems of morality meant nil if there was a veil of mutual suspicion and bad faith thrown over everything; where constant ill-will or dangerous delusion is ascribed to everyone who doesn’t believe what we believe. Rights, in other words, don’t always secure the ends to which we put them to use. Culture and civility, that “watery fidelity” as Oakeshott called it, is indeed watery and perhaps even whimsical, but it is also much better at securing the ends for which we have rights in the first place. To most this might be obvious, but it nonetheless is hardly ever reflected upon to any significant degree.

Dewey’s positive conception of democracy as a way of associated living might be optimistic and strong, but it links up nicely with Minogue’s point about how the daily interactions we have with others are far more important than supposedly public matters that increasingly demand our time and attention. Learning and knowing how to compromise with one’s neighbors, how to be civil and show deference, or even when to be silent, are ideas that have not aged well in our new polito-moral world. Minogue is right to point out that the “game is called ‘civility’ and it is the form of life that constitutes our modern identity. It consists in the art of being able to get along easily with other people holding a large range of beliefs and practices” [335]. Where every clash is met with the digging of one’s heels into the ground; where every issue or frustration in one’s personal life is traced back to some bigger, societal-level “structure”; where moral panic seems to be the only response to every issue; where a sense of proportion and priority is assumed to be solely in the eye of the beholder, we will continue down a road that Minogue fears will crowd out our moral lives, and worse, a road that is patently undemocratic.



  1. Ken Minogue, “Individualism and its Contemporary Fate.”
  2. Ken Minogue, “Morals & the Servile Mind.”
  3. . Richard Rorty, “A Defense of Minimalist Liberalism”


Featured image is A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, by Francisco de Goya