A version originally published in GREENFUSE #98, November 2008
Our lives are caught up in current events, all attention drawn towards the bouncing ball of politics speeding past the sand traps and water hazards of foreign policy, and rolling to a rest in the weeds of economic collapse as history plays through.
History is the critical element of our ephemeral memes – the mental equivalent of our biological genes that enable culture and civilization through tradition, myth, story, song, and metaphor. This complex transmission of experience and knowledge, mediated forward from the past, history- forms all we are, what and how we believe.
Learning how to learn, the educational model of the past, valued the inquiry, and analysis that conditioned the muscles of intellect for the heavy lifting of thought. Back when philosophy mattered; and the lessons of history were at least considered, books were read, critical thinking was esteemed, and now, much history has been neglected or forgotten.
The casual discovery of hidden nuggets of thought printed on age stable rag paper inspires in me a treasure hunt for lessons from the past.
One of my discoveries, a treasured gem, is:
'BREAKDOWN'- The collapse of traditional civilization. Written by Robert Briffault in 1932. Born in 1876 France to a Scottish mother, He emigrated with her to New Zealand following his father’s death, where he trained as a surgeon. Entering medical practice in 1905, he saw service on the western front during the “Great War” and then settling in England, becoming historian, social anthropologist, and novelist.
The contents page of 'BREAKDOWN' alone tells the story:
an excerpt from the chapter DEMOCRACY:
"THE obliteration of the criteria of thought makes democracy impossible. When the opinions founded on valid grounds and opinions founded on none are accounted equally entitled to respect, the scales being heavily weighted in favor of the latter, when sanity and insanity are set on the same level, democracy built upon that basis can only be a madhouse let loose. Social order cannot be built upon mental chaos. Democracy has proved itself impracticable, absurd, and intolerable. No other result could be expected.
But the fantastic experiment of modern democracy built upon a criminal organization and a madhouse is irrelevant as regards the principle of democracy.
The breakdown of modern democracy is not due to that principle, and has no bearing on proving or disproving it. It is due to the defiance of sanity and the studied cultivation of insanity in defense of authority of tradition and constituted abuses. Social and political efficiency cannot be extracted out of mental deficiency.
The legitimate purpose of democracy is to minimize injustice, not to impose opinions. If it should be proposed to settle a problem of astronomy, or archaeology, by a count of heads, the suggestion would be regarded as that of a lunatic. It would however, be no more insane than is the unrestricted and undefined application of the principle of democracy in traditional civilization. The principle has developed as the only means of obtaining any approach in administrative governments to social justice, that is, any protection against grossly oppressive violence. Defense against that violence cannot be delegated. Justice cannot be dispensed from above by paternally benevolent ruling classes. They are, as already noted, unqualified to apprehend the meaning of justice, which can be fully appreciated by those only who suffer from injustice. Every measure of social justice has, accordingly, been wrung from privileged and powerful persons by those who have suffered from that privileged power. And since every class is oppressed by those who possess more power, the only possible safeguard against oppression is universal democratic power. That ostensible protection against gross social oppression and violence is the function of democracy, and the ground for its necessity. It is the reason why it has come into being. Its function is not to settle vexed questions of astronomy or archaeology, or any other opinion.
But democratic modern traditional states have inherited their notion of the nature and function of the state from feudal oligarchies, from absolute monarchies, from ancient theocracies. In the enthusiasm for the conquest of democratic liberty it never once crossed the mind of anyone that a state could be anything but an absolute ruler possessing the same unlimited despotic rights as a king by divine right, a Czar, Grand Turk, or Pope. Democratic power was understood as the power of any party that could command a sufficient number of votes to do exactly according to their own fancy without limit, restriction, definition, rhyme or reason. Democracy resulting by an inevitable social mechanism from the natural reaction of the excluded classes against the oppression of the exclusive classes, could, it was never doubted, be used for altogether different purposes than protection against injustice. Not to protect people against being killed, despoiled. and roughly treated without power of appeal or protest, but to enable people to dictate to others what they shall drink, read, or how they shall amuse themselves, has been conceived to be the legitimate right of democratic power. Democracy has been used, in short, to enable the most insane portions of the population to impose any of their opinions...
A democracy is a political order in which every citizen has the resource of appealing against intolerable oppression, and a political disorder which enforces intolerable oppression does not function as a democracy, no matter how meticulously the count of heads is carried out.
A democracy presupposes a minimum of ordinary human intelligence. It is impossible in a community where intelligence is deliberately sabotaged, where the ordinary criteria of intelligent thought are repudiated, and no distinction between it and groundless opinion is, even in principle, admitted. In such a condition of the social aggregate the conversion of democratic power into a tyranny more oppressive than that of an autocracy or a theocracy is inevitable..."
Briffault's 'EUROPA', a 1935 best seller in the U.S. is a tour de force of pan European character studies, tracing the path of his protagonist through all levels and classes of society, as all blithely head towards the disaster of the war he had actually experienced. Briffault died in 1948 after yet another world war, no doubt more convinced that his thesis expounded in BREAKDOWN was accurate.
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel of political/social analysis. Like many books from the past, this time capsule of thought reminds us that we are not living in an isolated or unique span of chaos and quandary. 76 years out, we are still enmeshed in throes of a changing humanity that demands our consideration.