Ryszard Legutko’s The Demon In Democracy

Imagine, for a moment, that you grew up under Communist rule in Poland. Worse than that, you were born into that unenviable position, and therefore knew no other way of life. By necessity, you become familiar with the absurdities of the regime: the constant need to profess your loyalty to an idea, a party, an ideology; the stunning disconnect between the realities of your life, as you live it, and the reporting of your living conditions in the so-called press. Enemies of the regime, you are told, are omnipresent; they might be your co-workers, your friends, even your family members. Then imagine, after decades of this half-life lived under constant surveillance and scrutiny, the regime collapses, the all-important words – party, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary – lose their power. You are free, as you have never been free before, to think and to speak for yourself, in your own words. That was the experience of many Poles in the late 20th century, and of Ryszard Legutko in particular, a professor of philosophy in Kraków and a member of the European Parliament. Perhaps that early brush with communist thought has inoculated Poland against the tide of liberal democracy that has swept across Europe, for it is indeed the former Iron Curtain countries – Poland and Hungary in particular – that are proving most resistant to the European Union and its vision of a united and multicultural Europe. Legutko certainly thinks so: he has had the uncomfortable experience of déjà vu, of noticing frightening similarities – in both the goals and the methods – between the communist functionaries of yesteryear and the modern EU technocrats.

In The Demon In Democracy, Legutko develops this sense into a devastating critique of the regnant ideology in Europe, which he terms “liberal democracy,” but which encompasses more than both liberalism (as commonly understood) or democracy: he is attacking a vision of history, of society, and of morality shared by the majority of Europe’s politicians but by only a vanishingly small minority of actual Europeans. Taken together, the component parts of this vision add up to something frighteningly similar to communist theory: history is merely man’s struggle for liberation, culminating in democracy; society can be engineered along broadly technocratic lines, towards an ultimate aim; morality means merely the willingness to follow this program, and immorality belongs to all who would oppose it. The first mark of a mind captured by this vision of the world is arrogance: they cannot conceive that other people might view the world differently, and consequently treat dissent from their worldview with hostility. One of the baleful results of this vision writ large has been the disappearance of meaningful public debate: either two people of more-or-less indistinguishable world views argue over some triviality, or else the meaningful dissenter appears, only to be denounced, psychoanalyzed, vilified – but never debated. We need only look at Europe, where in the past year alone, a host of once-unthinkable figures have ascended to political prominence, to the utter surprise of the media and political classes, who cannot fathom their appeal.

[…] since the transformation of democracy into a liberal democracy, the spectrum of political acceptability has been distinctly limited. Liberal democracy has created its own orthodoxy, which causes it to become less of a forum for articulating positions and agreeing on actions than – to a much higher extent – a political mechanism for the selection of people, organizations, and ideas in line with the orthodoxy. This phenomenon can be seen especially in Europe, where in the past few decades there has been a major ideological rapprochement of the right- and left-wing parties. This resulted in the formation of what is called the “political mainstream,” which includes Socialists, Christian Democrats, the Greens, Social Democrats, Liberals, and even Conservatives.

The absurdity of this narrowing vision of the world reaches its apotheosis in the pursuit of “multiculturalism,” which Legutko summarizes as the naive belief that the best possible expression of the world’s diverse cultures and interests is, in fact, a single political and philosophical arrangement: liberal democracy.

Never before in human history did we see a similar phenomenon when millions of people, indistinguishable from each other, using the same patterns of thinking, politically homogenous and oblivious to any other way of viewing the political world except according to the orthodox liberal-democratic version, are not only convinced of their own individual and group differences and proclaim the unchallenged superiority of pluralism, but also want to enforce the same simplistic and tediously predictable orthodoxy on the entire world as the ultimate embodiment of the idea of multiplicity.

It is one of the bitter ironies of modern Europe that, the more “multicultural” its cities and countries become, the more they come to resemble one another. The local differences, from art to architecture, which held sway for centuries, give way to a dreary conformity.

Outside of the main thrust of Legutko’s argument, there are various observations about modern liberal-democratic man so astute as to earn him comparison with two of his clear progenitors, Alexis de Tocqueville and José Ortega y Gasset. He notes, for example, the increasingly important role that entertainment has come to play in our lives. “The modern sense of entertainment increasingly resembles what Pascal long ago called divertissement: that is, an activity – as he wrote in his Thoughts – that separates us from the seriousness of existence and fills this existence with false content.” My peer group drowns in entertainment, from immersive video games to the competitiveness of fantasy sports, but it is not merely the fact of their distraction that matters – though, in a democracy, dependent on civic engagement, this certainly matters. What truly shocks is that their vision of the good life is one that offers them the maximum opportunity to divert themselves, to be entertained. “[..] liberal democracy and entertainment found enthusiastic allies in each other. Entertainment became the most obvious and direct manifestation of freedom that liberalism offered humanity and, at the same time, the most tangible confirmation of the dominant status of the democratic man and his tastes.” This also happens to be Legutko’s most frightening insight, for liberal democracy has managed to achieve something that eluded communism everywhere it was attempted: a perfect harmony between man and regime. “If ever any system existed that was perfectly tailored to the aspirations of the people inhabiting it, it was liberal democracy, and if ever any human model existed that was perfectly tailored to opportunities offered by the political system and to the aspirations enhanced by it, it was a liberal-democratic man.” Understand that he does not mean this as a compliment, either to liberal-democracy or to the men and women who feel at home in this system.