When the First World War ended, there was a brief period when it seemed as if the world really had become safe for democracy—when it seemed as if history had come to an end and liberal democracy had achieved a lasting hegemony. The same thing happened again just over 70 years later when the Berlin Wall came down, Eastern Europe liberated itself, the Soviet Union fell apart, and the Cold War came to an end.
On neither occasion, however, were the heady hopes of the victors borne out. In both cases tyranny gradually re-emerged, and disappointment dogged those who had imagined that the dream articulated by Immanuel Kant in his “Essay on Perpetual Peace” would be fulfilled.
None of this should come as a surprise. Tyranny in one form or another has been the norm throughout human history, and it is not apt to disappear. As Montesquieu observed 270 years ago in his Spirit of the Laws, its avoidance requires artifice. “To form a moderate government,” he tells us, “it is necessary to combine powers, to regulate them, to temper them, to make them act, to give, so to speak, a ballast to one in order to put it in a condition to resist another; this is a masterpiece of legislation, which chance rarely produces & prudence is rarely allowed to produce.” Though it constitutes an assault on human nature, he adds, despotism is, in a sense, natural. It “jumps up, so speak, before our eyes; it is uniform throughout: as the passions alone are necessary for its establishment, the whole world is good enough for that.”
If we are to understand our present predicament, we will have to take into account just how fragile liberal democratic regimes are and the preconditions for their survival. In this regard, as Montesquieu insisted, size matters. As he noticed, the first republics known to man relied on civic virtue; and, to sustain themselves, they had to be small enough for shame to be a formidable force. In antiquity, as he also pointed out, all of the polities situated on an extended territory were despotisms—where fear was brought in as a substitute for shame as a source of political and social discipline.
In a large republic, Montesquieu observed, “interests become particular; a man senses then that he can be happy, great, glorious without his fatherland; & soon that he can be great solely on the ruins of his fatherland.” One consequence of such a republic’s size is that “the common good is sacrificed to a thousand considerations; it is subordinated to the exceptions; it depends on accidents.” The situation “in a small” republic is more favorable: There, “the public good is more fully felt, better known, closer to each citizen; the abuses are less extensive there & as a consequence less well protected.”
By way of contrast, Montesquieu added, “A large empire presupposes a despotic authority in the one who governs.” One cannot deny that “promptness in decision-making is required to compensate for the distance of the places to which orders are sent”; that “fear is required to prevent negligence on the part of the governor or magistrate operating at a great distance”; that, in such circumstances, “law must be lodged in a single head” and that “it must change unceasingly,” for “accidents” really do “multiply in a state in proportion to its magnitude.” This, he did not have to say, was the experience of Rome. That polity’s expansion was fatal to its republican character.
It was Montesquieu’s analysis that occasioned the great debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists in the United States in 1787 and 1788. As everyone understood at the time, the fledgling polity was far too large to qualify as a small republic. Federalism was the remedy suggested by Montesquieu. A loose confederation of republics could command sufficient resources to provide for the common defense while its member republics remained small enough to maintain free institutions. Unfortunately, however, most of the states composing the nascent American union were themselves too large to be considered small republics; and, under the constitution proposed by the Federal Convention, the national government had much greater scope than the confederations Montesquieu had in mind.
To meet the challenge posed by Montesquieu’s analysis of the lessons to be learned from the history of republics, James Madison and his colleagues looked to the French philosophe’s analysis of a third form of government—the species of law-bound monarchy, limited in scope, that emerged in medieval Europe—and to his discussion of the form of government that subsequently developed out of this in England as its monarchy evolved. These two species of government had upheld constitutionalism and the rule of law in polities situated on territories of intermediate size; and the latter of the two—equipped, as it was, with a House of Commons capable of imposing its will on the monarch—was quasi-republican in character.
In framing the proposed constitution, the delegates at the convention had combined two institutions that Montesquieu had praised—federalism and the separation of powers perfected by the English—and Madison even argued, counter-intuitively, that the multiplication of special interests attendant on the size of the fledgling nation could be put to good use. It would, he suspected, turn out to be an obstacle to the formation of a majority faction, and it would thereby encourage within the new republic’s legislature a spirit of accommodation and compromise conducive to the pursuit of justice and the common good.
In the 1790s, however, quite soon after the American republic was established, some of those quite deeply involved in the Founding came to have misgivings. It was in response to the legislative program proposed by George Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton that James Madison began thinking about the prospect his compatriots would eventually face—“a consolidation of the States into one government”—and the consequences that might follow from such an eventuality. First, he argued, the “incompetency of one Legislature to regulate all the various objects belonging to the local governments, would evidently force a transfer of many of” those objects “to the executive department.” Then, he contended that, if the state and local governments were made subject to the Federal government, the sheer size of the country “would prevent that control” on the Federal Congress, “which is essential to a faithful discharge of its trust, [since] neither the voice nor the sense of ten or twenty millions of people, spread through so many latitudes as are comprehended within the United States, could ever be combined or called into effect, if deprived of those local organs, through which both can now be conveyed.” In such circumstances, Madison warned, “the impossibility of acting together, might be succeeded by the inefficacy of partial expressions of the public mind, and this at length, by a universal silence and insensibility, leaving the whole government to that self directed course, which, it must be owned, is the natural propensity of every government.”
In short, Madison revisited Montesquieu’s argument concerning republics and the extent of territory suitable to them. And, at a time when the territory was much smaller than it is now, and the population was not even one-fifteenth of what it is now, he began to worry that the extent of territory encompassed by the United States and the size of its population might be too great. He was, moreover, virtually certain that, if the Federal government were allowed to encroach on the prerogatives of the states and the localities, as he believed Hamilton intended, despotism of one sort or another would be the result.
Madison was no doubt wrong about Hamilton’s program, and later in his life he tacitly acknowledged as much by proposing the establishment of the second national bank. But his analysis of what might happen was nonetheless on point. It foreshadowed Alexis de Tocqueville’s warnings concerning the dangers of administrative centralization; and it pertains to virtually every republic on the globe. All of them are based on the English or the American model, and, by now, in all of them, thanks to ambition and emergencies, the administrative state and the executive power loom large. Beneath the benign surface of every republic in the world, there lurks the edifice of a despotism more fully tyrannical than any government in earlier times. In the early 1930s, Adolf Hitler demonstrated just how easily one could transform a republic, equipped by the likes of Max Weber with all of the standard institutional safeguards, into a totalitarian state.
The tyrants of antiquity—Cleisthenes of Sicyon, Cypselus and Periander of Corinth, Peisistratus and Hippias of Athens, Polycrates of Samos, Hiero of Syracusa, and the like—were not especially ambitious, and the same can be said for the despots of medieval and Renaissance Italy. They desired power and glory, to be sure, and not infrequently they were great builders. They delighted in projecting power abroad; and in Greece, as Aristotle points out, they were exceedingly wary of domestic opposition. Men of distinction and “high thoughts” they sidelined or killed. Dining clubs and education they sought to eliminate. They did what they could to isolate citizens from one another and to sow distrust, and they employed spies—even to the point of encouraging women to inform on their husbands and slaves to report on the conversations of their masters. But they did not aspire to be lawgivers, and they interfered minimally with the lives of those who posed no threat to their rule. True ambition was left to Lycurgus, Solon, and the like—which is to say, to the founders of republics.
One could argue that Augustus in Rome was an exception to this rule. He surreptitiously founded a new regime and did so by a process of trial and error with considerable care and forethought, and it survived, more or less intact, for centuries. Oliver Cromwell later tried something of the sort with less success. But these two had no real successors. It was Napoleon Bonaparte who set the stage for the new species of tyranny that emerged in the wake of the First World War. His ambitions were those of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and one need only peruse the Code Napoleon to see just how self-consciously transformative his rule was. The great tyrants of the 20th century—Mussolini, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao—and their imitators in countries of less heft—Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, and Fidel Castro—all claimed, as had Napoleon, that they were bringing wisdom and science to bear on human affairs.
For inspiration, the men responsible for pioneering the reconfiguration of tyranny looked to Machiavelli’s Prince—which celebrated as the pinnacle of princely virtue quasi-legendary figures such as Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, and Theseus. These men the Florentine singled out because each was said to have overthrown the existing order and to have introduced what the Florentine called “new orders and modes,” and he intimated that their institution of new orders and modes was akin in each case to the establishment of a new religion. They were, he said, “armed prophets,” and he made it clear that their chief task was not just to govern, but to make men “believe.”
It was the vision of new orders and modes laid out by Machiavelli in The Prince that inspired Sir Francis Bacon to articulate in his Advancement of Learning something like a secular religion promising the creation of heaven on earth; and, as Bacon makes clear in his New Atlantis, it was this utopian aspiration that first gave tyranny a new face and justified its intervention in private life on a scale prefigured nowhere other than in the ancient Lacedaemonian republic. Where, however, the Spartan lawgiver, operating in a tiny community, could rely on shame, these tyrannies—situated, as they were, on extended territories—had to resort to terror and extend the ethos of fear and mutual distrust, hitherto restricted in tyrannies to the sphere occupied by men of distinction, to the world inhabited by ordinary women and men.
These tyrants were not without resources. They possessed via the apparatus of the modern state an administrative capacity unknown anywhere in antiquity. The ancient Lacedaemonians were policed by the oversight of their fellow citizens. Their modern Italian, Russian, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian counterparts were kept in order by state agents in what came to be called a police state.
Nothing has happened in the past 30 years to impair the administrative capacity of the modern state. Instead, that capacity has advanced by leaps and bounds as a consequence of the digital revolution. The totalitarian states of yesteryear were totalitarian in aspiration but not fully in fact. A great deal escaped their purview; and, as the existence of samizdat suggests, dissent stubbornly persisted in the interstices of these societies. For surveillance, they depended on a great army of human beings—who were often careless, lazy, and negligent—and the demands they made on their bureaucracies often exceeded their capacity.
Now, however, thanks to CCTV cameras and facial recognition software, to cell phones and the devices that track them, and to the internet and the data-collection carried out by those who supply its users with search engines and other applications (all now seconded by artificial intelligence and the astonishing power of contemporary computers), privacy is a thing of the past, and it is in principle possible to track hundreds of millions of individuals through every hour of the day, noting where they go, what they do, with whom they communicate, and even what they write and say. Someday soon, electronic sensors may even be capable of reading the minds of women and men who happen to be nearby.
As everyone is aware, the Chinese government is now engaged in a great experiment testing the new technology of population control. There is no need to rehearse here the horrors being perpetrated against the Uighurs of Xinjiang province. What matters most is that the experiment seems to be succeeding; that the Chinese intend to employ the same techniques of surveillance and “persuasion” in the whole country; that other despotisms, such as the Iranian regime, are already using CCTV cameras and facial recognition software to hunt down dissidents; and that, in time, the full panoply of surveillance technology is apt to be adopted there and elsewhere. Had the old Soviet Union possessed such a capacity, that regime would probably be still with us.
Even more important, the same technology is available in the United States; in Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand; and in Europe. Our computers, cell phones, and search engines track our whereabouts, our interests, our tastes, and our opinions; and they report to others who promise to preserve our privacy and who make enormous profits from breaching that promise. Moreover, all the information that these private entities collect is in principle available to those who govern us. All it takes is a court order, and that is easily secured. Those in power who wish to remain in power have in the past abused the surveillance authority accorded the state, and they will certainly do so again. All that it takes to justify such requests is a widespread conviction that there is a national emergency or one of those waves of hysteria that liberal democracies engender from time to time—and, though the focus has changed, we still remain vulnerable to utopian aspirations. If there is one thing that human beings cannot resist, it is the temptation to busy themselves with the lives of others.