The oddity of democracy
In the third year of the French Revolution Louis XVI, having put his signature to a new constitution, was shown in a variety of popular prints with a cap of liberty on his head (figure 8). It may have been an uncongenial identity for the king, but it graphically presented the unique paradox and oddity of democracy. The head of state was one of the people and a subject like everyone else, and, by inversion, the subjects were also sovereign. Louis XVI was not a typical inhabitant of France, but this image symbolised the duality of democracy and the unique duality of its population, where government by the people existed together with government of the people, where the people had two aspects to their identity, both as sovereign and as subjects.
For much of the twentieth century, whilst few aspiring politicians would have questioned the desirability of democracy, however much they might have sought to evade, undermine, or destroy it in practice, this formal or merely compliant accord obscured rather than addressed the problems of democratic government and politics. For there to be government, by the people or by anyone else, there has to be someone to be governed. Even ‘self-government’ by an individual depends on there being a divided self, the rebellious id and the controlling super-ego. Though democracy is government by the people it is also government of the people, who are simultaneously sovereign and subjects, and in any population larger than a household, there will be institutions and persons who manage the collective business of society, enforce its rules, and formulate and administer its policies. When the people is everyone, or at least all adults, in order for there to be government, the people have at one and the same time to be sovereign and ruled, like plays in which one actor takes many parts. The oddity of democracy is that government by the people means that the same group who are sovereign are, at the same time, the subjects. There is a continuing tension between democracy as rule by the people and democracy as rule of and for the people. All other forms of government start with the rulers. Long before the rights of man or of woman, let alone universal human rights, right was something claimed by the few against the many. ‘Dieu et mon droit’, which still stands under the coat of arms of the monarchy of the United Kingdom, is a claim to territory and to domination, an assertion of divine sanction for royal exercise of power over a population. Democracy, by contrast, makes sense only with a demos whose people, whilst they are governed, are also sovereign and possessed of precisely that right which was formerly claimed as a royal monopoly. So the obverse of the identity of the elite in hierarchies is the identity of the demos in democracies.
The dual role of a democratic population creates unavoidable tensions and contradictions of identity, and has called forth many proposals for dealing with or explaining them. Two solutions to the problem of reconciling the people, the demos, as both sovereign and ruled are represented in different ways in the accounts of Joseph Schumpeter and George Bernard Shaw. For the first identity of democratic citizens, as members of the sovereign demos, there needs to be equality; for the second identity, as ruled citizens, a distinction is necessary between providers and provided, those whose principal occupation is to govern, and the remaining majority for whom government is carried on but who are subject to its legislation and administration. This distinction is presented theoretically by Schumpeter, and graphically by Shaw. Schumpeter described as democratic elitism a set of arrangements and practices which were elitist because small groups governed, and democratic because these governing groups were chosen by democratic competition, and as a result of choices between alternative governing identities presented to, rather than constructed by, the electorate.1 Shaw's more picturesque metaphor preceded this account by some years. Government, he suggested, was like the theatre, and the people were the audience. They did not write the play, but they could applaud, boo, or walk out, and the success of the theatre depended, therefore, upon both the presentational skills of the dramatist and the players, and the support of the audience.2
In a democracy the people are still governed, but they are at the same time the government, or at least the owners or shareholders, and this gives them a potentially unique relationship with governing officials and institutions. Schumpeter goes some of the way to describe this relationship, but Shaw's metaphor is fuller and more illuminating: Schumpeter's version is closer to people as customers, in which relation only buying or not buying of favoured and desired or uncongenial and unwanted human goods occurs, though even there it does not take the economic analogy further and see the demos not only as a customer but as an employer. Shaw's metaphor covers not only the commercial, self-contained, and completed action of buying a ticket, but the sustained and open-ended action of cheering, booing, and throwing rotten tomatoes. If people's identity goes no further than being customers, only money talks; if they are an audience of citizens, the people talk, and talk in many voices, in many ways, and on many occasions. But a duality remains, since as subjects, people are not the equal of the personnel of government; as the sovereign demos, they are.
The implication of each of these accounts is that the population of a democracy has some kind of ownership of government, or that government acts on behalf of a demos, or that government acts subject to the cheers or boos of the populace. Whichever version is accepted, the population of a democracy stands in a very different relationship to the persons and institutions of government from the relationship of a population to any other form of political arrangement in either mobilised or unmobilised populations. There is no necessity for unthinking or unavoidable deference to the institutions or persons of government, for they are agents of the population, and the title ‘public servant’, with emphasis on the noun, describes a unique feature of this relationship. A mobilised society, if it is no more than that, is an attempt by government to achieve predictability. But if the society is also a democracy, one of its characteristics is unpredictability. The population of a democracy is governed, and some of its number have the task of carrying out that government. But at the same time the people rule, and in their political actions behave with a freedom and an unpredictability which marks them off from the merely mobilised. They may not even go to the play, or visit the theatre at all, but spend their time and energy in quite different ways.
Any relationship contributes to the identity of the parties to it, and the identity of the population of a democracy is in that way constituted as independent and critical. There is a broad range of activities and potential activities which constitute such a demos and which, even if some of them are found amongst the populations of other kinds of system, are not carried out in the same way there. In a monarchy, rights are rights of government. In a democracy they are rights against and over government. The character of a democratic population is correspondingly unique, and an essential part of the polity in a way that the character of the population of no other system is.
Democracy depends not only on good government or good governors, but on the political role of a demos of active citizens
Identity can be cultivated in solitude, by hermits or by castaways; Robinson Crusoe did not lack visible character. But the cultivation is most sustained and elaborate when it is conducted in the presence of other people, and in engagement with them. Flourishing identity cultivation is a public activity, and in the comprehensive public activity of governing and being governed, it flourishes vigorously. But the extent to which the mass of people is actively engaged in the cultivation of political identity differs with the character of the polity under which the people live. Not all forms of human government have much place for the majority of those whom they govern, and conversely the more open and democratic a polity, the greater the likelihood of broad engagement in public political identification. The distinction between being somebody and being nobody is one that fades as more and more of a population achieves public status as opposed to public subordination or private exclusion or marginalisation. Once the rulers and the ruled are one, identity cultivation enters a new dimension.
Rulers pay great attention to their own distinctive identity. They do so in all political systems, but in democracies they do so in a unique way. Democracy is marked off from all other systems of government and politics by the fact that rulers and subjects are the same people. In mobilised societies, the identity cultivation of rulers can no longer ignore, or pay only sporadic attention to, the identity of the mass of the population. Once that popular majority has achieved democratic status, the continuous and public cultivation of identity becomes something in which both rulers and ruled play an active part, a part made unique by the novelty of the ruled being also the rulers and the political employers of those who exercise governmental power.
The paradox of people who are both sovereign and ruled is the root of a series of oddities and tensions within all democracies, tensions which can never be wholly resolved. Whilst the people both rule and are ruled, for them to be ruled there are institutions, officials, and governors as in any other system of government, who are distinct from the rest of the population, and who cultivate an identity which constitutes that distinction. And because the people, the demos, are the source of authority, they at one and the same time rule in the most general sense, and frequently and constructively conflict with the actions, policies, and ambitions of rulers in particular matters and in the day-to-day conduct of their lives. The demos is ruled, but the people's response to that rule is unpredictable, takes many forms, and is an essential component of their democratic status just as much as is their choice of government through voting and all the activities which surround and sustain a system of free election. There are tensions within democracy between the cultivation of the good citizen as sovereign and the cultivation of the good citizen as subject, supporter, and contributor. But that is not necessarily an undesirable thing. Clockwork depends on tension to tell us the time and the string which restrains a kite also enables it to fly; release the tension and the kite falls.
Schumpeter's account of democracy is of occasional or regular choices by the electorate between competing political elites, but with implied quiescence in the long times between those exercises of choice, a periodic Hobbesian contract agreeing to be ruled. It is an account which has been followed by and has sustained a view of voting as a rational choice much like the purchase of food or consumer goods. But there is more to voting than this. In voting, the population of a democracy is acting out its sovereign identity, an action independent of any calculation of the likely further consequences of its choice, of parties successful or policies implemented. Voting is much more than a rational purchase, as the civil rights movement in the United States dramatically demonstrated, when to cast a vote, whether or not that vote influenced a final result, was an assertion of citizen right and citizen identity.3 Every ballot cast is a component of the democratic identity of the voter and of the whole polity. Were voting no more than a calculated pursuit of material advantage, or of any advantage at all consequent on the victory of a particular candidate or party, there would be many circumstances where a rational citizen would not bother to leave the house to put a marked slip in a box. That citizens none the less do so is illustration of how much more there is than this to the ballot. Citizens act out their identity in voting, as they do in their use of the streets; in their use of universal provision of public services; in demonstrations, petitions, protests, and free association with each other. In their role as active citizens whose agent government is, the people of a democracy will not curtail their political activities once they have cast a vote. They will organise, demonstrate, argue, agitate, lobby, protest, and act not just as Schumpeter's choosers between elites or even as Shaw's audience restricted to the theatre, but as continual critics, connoisseurs, and auditors of public life in the streets, in public places, and at any time.
Democracy, if it is to be an active debate over the work of government and not merely a homogeneous and occasional consent to rule, is characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability, and unpredictability expressed not just in narrowly or conventionally political activity, but in the whole range of actions which characterise public or social identity. The necessary unpredictability of democracy requires an absence of uniformity with a presence of accepted and practised rules and restraints. The boundaries between the two are always and necessarily fluid. Is a law against blasphemy an imposition of religious uniformity, or the acceptance of rules of public discussion? There is no universal and simple answer. It depends how blasphemy is understood to begin with. Is a ban on the wearing of distinctive religious clothing by pupils in schools an assertion of the fact that all citizens are equal and that there are no special distinctions or social credit points, or is it an interference with the right of every citizen to dress as she pleases? The uncertainty of the answer, and the absence of a single, authoritative, imposed, and universal orthodoxy, is what makes for the constant uncertainty of a democratic society, but is also the mark of its necessary freedom and vitality. It is also a mark of this freedom that not only can there be many and conflicting opinions, but that any single opinion can be changed, as the French feminist Christine Delphy has described in relation to the debate in France and elsewhere over headscarves worn by female Muslims, where discussion has been marked by sophisticated shifts from criticising the covering of heads as an oppressive threat to a secular society and gender equality, to supporting scarves as a free choice of women.4 The dependence of any material dimension of identity for meaning on cultivated context and significance enables Gary Watt to argue that throughout ‘its long history, the veil or mask worn by females has challenged and disconcerted predominantly male authority’.5
The duality of the people as rulers and the people as ruled means that there is a distinction between a democratic society and a democratic state. Each is a necessary component of the whole, and for the whole to thrive, each must have a degree of both autonomy and continuity. That is evident in the case of a democratic state, less so in the case of a democratic society. But a democratic society requires something not only greater than but distinct from regular and free elections. Whilst the people may be sovereign, the business of making and operating laws and policies is done by a minority. A democratic polity thus requires both an active citizenry and an active but representative and responsive government and administration. They are two aspects of a single but complex political and social phenomenon, and the one can, to that extent, be read off from the other.
A way of telling one kind of political system from another, and gaining an initial clue about what one is confronting, is provided by the character played by Bernard Miles in the 1948 Boulting brothers’ film, The Guinea Pig, who charms his son's supercilious public-school teacher by telling him that from his own army experience he had learned to tell the calibre of the officers from the quality of the soldiers, and so he knew what the man would be like before meeting him, having already been impressed by his pupils.6 The same applies in politics; it is possible to tell a lot about one segment of a group by the conduct of another segment. It will frequently, even normally, not be necessary to look at both ordinary people and the formal machinery of government: in mobilised societies, the one will reveal a lot about the other, and a great deal about the form of government can be induced from the actions of ordinary subjects. A polity is all of a piece, which is very different from being homogeneous. English boarding schools, whatever their other virtues, may be mobilised societies but are certainly not democracies, and Miles's parent with military experience knew a well-run regiment when he saw one simply by meeting the troops.
It is possible to read off one aspect of a democratic society from another because to say that a society is democratic and mobilised is to identify a feature which is not conveyed at all by titles such as ‘oligarchy’, ‘despotism’, ‘dictatorship’, or ‘theocracy’. All these other words describe who it is that rules. It is possible to give an account of any one of them without giving an account of ordinary people, the inhabitants of the land. Nothing follows, from the nature of these systems of government, about the character of the subjects, which can vary widely. If, on the other hand, they can be described also as mobilised, and even more so if they can be described as a democracy, then the nature of rule and the nature of the ruled are inextricably engaged with one another. In that sense there is as much difference between a mobilised theocracy and a premodern theocracy as between a theocracy and a military dictatorship, and an equally great difference between a constitutional monarchy in a society which is mobilised but not democratic and a constitutional monarchy with a democratic population. It may not always be possible to tell from studying ordinary people whether they live in a theocracy or a military dictatorship. But if they are in mobilised states, there will be much to be learned about the character of their government from the lives of ordinary men and women. And democracy is distinct again, since while all the other forms of government can exist in either mobilised or unmobilised societies, democracy is, by its very nature, mobilised.
The identity of a democratic society: acting out citizen identity
The roles of sovereign citizens as proprietors or clients of government go far beyond conventional democratic politics, and can extend in a quite different direction, apparently away from politics altogether and towards indifference to it. The first role is the action of well-behaved mobilised democrats, the second of badly behaved democrats, who nonetheless exhibit a form of behaviour which is essential for the health, vitality, and survival of democracy. A democratic citizenry is identified not only by its self-assertive approach to government, but by its frequently behaving towards government and politics exactly as it pleases.
Oscar Wilde's alleged complaint that the trouble with socialism was that it did interfere with one's evenings so dreadfully might appear to be a dismissal of democracy and the demands which meetings and all the other participations in public affairs made on one's time, but it is, on the contrary, an assertion of it. The democratic citizen may be well advised to pay attention to public affairs, but is under absolutely no obligation to do so, any more than a potential theatre audience is obliged to go to the theatre, or a browser in a bookshop obliged to buy. The populations of mobilised autocracies may be required to attend parades, but the populations of democracies may do as they wish, when they wish, how they wish. Writing shortly after the end of the Second World War, Quintin Hogg delivered what seemed a witty put-down to active democrats when he wrote that conservatives ‘do not believe that political struggle is the most important thing in life. In this they differ from Communists, Socialists, Nazis, Fascists, Social Creditors and most members of the British Labour Party. The simplest among them prefer fox-hunting – the wisest religion.’7 But the typical conservative was not, as Hogg supposed, preferring old authority to new radicalism, but making the kinds of choices which are only fully available to a democratic populace.
The word ‘democracy’ can be used too loosely, to apply to anything from an election to a decision on what to have for breakfast, replacing Stalin's ‘socialism in one country’ with ‘socialism in one coffee bar’. But it is difficult to have a society where in their formal, constitutional, legal, and political relations people are equal, but in their economic or social ones they are not. A flourishing democratic polity requires a flourishing democratic society, what David Owen has termed a ‘common consciousness’.8 It is for this reason that John Dryzek has argued that because ‘movements for democratization almost always originate in insurgency in civil society rather than the state, a flourishing oppositional civil society is the key to further democratization’.9 The deference described in di Lampedusa's The Leopard, where the newly enfranchised electors wait to see how the prince is going to vote before exercising their own democratic right to decide, vitiates the formal democracy of institutions and laws.10 Deference is different from respect, and while the unpredictable freedoms of a democratic society require the latter, they preclude the former. The politician, not as prominent as he thought himself to be, who arriving at a theatre in a university town without a ticket and being denied admission by the student on the door and demanding, ‘Do you know who I am?’, was met with the call to the foyer ‘Is there a doctor in the house? There's someone here who doesn't know who he is,’ was being met with humour but without deference. It was an application of the historian and socialist R. H. Tawney's advice that it was the mark of an egalitarian society that you could tell anyone to go to hell, and they would not be under the slightest obligation to do so.11
A democratic culture is not only broad, varied, and unpredictable, but difficult to define within a narrow definition of politics. This is well illustrated in Tom Paulin's inclusion of quietist or anti-political poems in his anthology of political verse, for instance Derek Mahon's ‘A Disused Shed in County Wexford’, with its allusive use of snails to suggest lessons about civic freedom.12 The relevance of snails is not immediately obvious, but the unpredictability and loose frontiers of democracy involve just such surprising flexibility.
The defining political character of democracy is the equality of all persons. But that equality extends beyond the most obviously political aspects of identity to the whole social identity of the population; an identity which, while not immediately political, is an essential component of the freedom and equality on which a more conventional conception of democracy places value.
The defining messages about public life can often be conveyed by many more means than simple words. The importance of how you look – the sight, the sound, the movements, all combine to compose the public person. And all of this is conveyed, not by a constitutional document or a treatise on law or a political manifesto, but by appearance and behaviour, by voice and clothing. A democratic people has a character which is not derived from laws or constitutions, but which is in symbiotic relationship with them.
Just as democracy is characterised by a tension between a sovereign people and a ruling elite, so it is further characterised by the contrary demands of democratic solidarity and individual freedom, the stress between association and distinction. When a mobilised society becomes a democracy, the tension between the solidarity and equality of action, which characterises mobilisation and defines in one way the demos, and the equality of individual choice which characterises democracy begins. Both ends of the spectrum can be played at the same time: liberty caps were a part of the people's liberty during the French Revolution, and to wear one was part of one's identity as belonging to a free people. At the same time, not to wear one, and more particularly to display expense or extravagance in dress, was taken as a mark of treason or subversion, in which case one's freedom was curtailed or attacked by those who saw democratic freedom as a feature of the population as a homogeneous whole, not as the sum of the freedoms of its individual members. The sentiment of aversion to the visible extravagances of wealth expressed in Robert Burn's ‘A Man's a Man for a’ That’, which became a political theme song for many Chartists,13 received often more brutal application in France. The ‘man o’ independent mind’ only ‘looks and laughs’ at ‘yon birkie, ca'd a lord’ with his ‘ribband, star, and a’ that’ in Scotland,14 but visible aristocratic splendours were not always and everywhere safe from everything but mockery. Yet if the term democracy is to have a distinctive meaning when applied not to the government of a territory but to its inhabitants, the actions and identities of those inhabitants can be prescribed only by themselves, and by all and each of them, not simply by a majority. So, to the tension of identity and status between a sovereign people and its rulers is added the tension of identity between a sovereign people as possessed of a collective identity and a sovereign people whose sovereignty is constituted by the self-government and self-identification of each of its members. The paradoxical tension in identity between association and distinction is nowhere more clearly expressed.
Clothing and physical appearance are the first evidence of identity, before an opinion is expressed, an accent heard, or a manner of behaviour observed. A class-divided society can be identified by the appearance of its members without any other evidence. One mark of a democratic society may be a democracy of appearance, dress, and the public presentation of persons. Citizenship has frequently been seen to be appropriately expressed not only by the proprietorial behaviour of those who own their own polity, but by forms of dress, whether Mao jackets or liberty caps, which made citizens as distinguished, or as undistinguished, as those who managed public matters on their behalf. In a society which is divided by class or caste, the aspiration to equality has a sartorial dimension. The desire for simplicity and a refusal to flaunt one's identity at the expense of others is an ancient and venerable tradition: take no heed for what you shall eat or what you shall wear, consider the lilies of the field.15 Monasticism and Puritanism alike attempt to reduce clothing to a functional level, but cannot avoid at the same time using it to proclaim both an egalitarian and ascetic message and the distinctiveness of the wearer. John Moore, visiting Paris in 1789, observed that ‘in a short time a little black cloak on a brown thread-bare coat became respectable; and afterwards, when the cloaks were laid aside … a great plainness or rather shabiness of dress was … considered as a presumption of patriotism.’16 Democracy as the rule of all entails the abolition of visible distinctions between categories of persons: Mirabeau, at the start of the meeting of the Estates General in France in 1789, objected to the enforced distinctions of dress between the three estates. Yet it was not long into a revolution which set out to abolish inequality, that new distinctions were being insisted on, created, and introduced.17 Identity has both an associative and a distinguishing dimension, and in a society with a substantial degree of equality, differences of dress will contribute to individual identities both by departing from egalitarian similarities and by employing them in heightened or exaggerated form, aspiring both to identity by association and distinction by exemplary forms of common or shared characteristics, seeking simultaneously both equality and superiority. The challenging of the uniformities of caste and class by the paradoxical varieties of democratic equality has provided a continual issue for both theorists and practitioners. Equality could go, in the eyes of some, too far, and it was not long before the revolution was planning ways of acceptable distinction, between officials and ordinary citizens, between national representatives and mere articulate adults. By 1798, deputies had a coat of national blue, a tricolour belt, a scarlet cloak, and a velvet hat with a tricolour cockade.18
The American Revolution followed the French in its choice of homespun-appearance in clothing in, ‘conscious opposition to British corruption and luxury’, and the direct domestic preparation of cloth and garment ‘through a chain of tasks mobilizing the entire family, rehearsed the republican credo of propertied independence. When yeomen then donned the coarse products of their home industry they embodied an equally republican frugality.’19 The cultivation of the simple and egalitarian in clothing applied both domestically and abroad in the formal presence of the new nation. James Buchanan, American ambassador to London, was in 1854 unable to attend the State Opening of Parliament because he declined, in line with American practice, to wear ceremonial dress. He wrote home to the Secretary of State that ‘A minister of the United States should … wear something more in character with our democratic institutions than a coat covered with embroidery and gold lace’.20 Half a century later, in a photograph of the court of Edward VII in 1903, the US ambassador still stands out, by wearing a mere formal black suit.21
The trade unionist and Labour MP Will Thorne, in the early years of the twentieth century, when invited to dinner with Lady Astor and the Prince of Wales, replied that he would come only if he could wear his ‘everyday clothes’.22 In a democracy, if the workers were to dine with aristocracy and monarchy, they would not do so by wearing the marks of privilege. It was a similar sense of democratic solidarity expressed in ‘everyday clothes’ which led the historian R. H. Tawney to wear for many years after he had ceased serving in the army the sergeant's jacket which had marked him off as a common soldier rather than an officer during the First World War.23 The use of clothing to cultivate solidarity with the ordinary citizen can, too, involve an identity which rejects a location low down in a social or economic hierarchy. ‘Zoot suits’ adopted by American workers have been understood as sartorial compliance with capitalism, but they can equally be understood as a rejection of the subordinate status of waged employee.24 But the common dress of democracy can be a perilous trap for the politician who too obviously attempts an uncharacteristic ordinariness. Shortly after succeeding John Major as leader of the Conservative Party in 1997, William Hague appeared in public wearing a baseball cap, and was met with widespread derision as much amongst his own supporters as amongst political opponents.25
Whilst rulers or leaders may wish to establish distinctions between citizens and officials, there is a contrary belief that all people should be, and should appear to be, equal. Hence eccentric, flamboyant, or unsettling action, appearance, or behaviour can be stigmatised. Once again, the tension inherent in the democratic aspiration obtrudes. If democracy is rule by the people, and the demos is seen as culturally, socially, homogeneous, then rule by people is debarred, since individual citizens are expected or constrained to conform to a common identity. If on the other hand rule by the people not only allows but is characterised by varieties of identity, then rulers or leaders cannot establish or publish a representative identity, and any identity they do publish will distinguish them from large numbers of their fellow citizens. This dilemma emerged early on in the French Revolution, when an attempt was made to ban distinctive religious garb at the same time as freedom of dress was being applauded.26 This might seem to say that in theory democracy is impossible. But even if it does not work in theory, it works in practice, and does so as an element in a polity with other elements, with which, when the modus vivendi works, it conflicts, jars, compromises, and accommodates.
The visibility of a sovereign democracy has been located in streets, in dress, in the courtesies of everyday life. Arriving in Barcelona in 1936, George Orwell reported that ‘Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial terms of speech had temporarily disappeared.’27 From a different political direction, Herbert Morrison, reflecting on his experience of London politics and the change from horse-drawn to petrol-powered buses, commented that:
the old horse-driver in his front seat on the top of his vehicle would chat and joke with City clerks and stockbrokers – the seats near him being a privilege place. He rode in distinguished company. From what I learned in my youth I would say that the bulk of horse-bus drivers voted Tory. With the motor-bus driver it was different. His vehicle was a new-fangled device appealing to the young and forward-looking. There was a call for a sense of adventure. The drivers were isolated from the passengers. The bulk of the motor-bus drivers, as a consequence of their different way of life, voted Labour, and by the 1920s a few of them communist.28
Morrison could have added to this account that the origin of the name of this form of transport was the Latin ‘omnibus’, meaning for everyone. The freedom to move wherever one wishes and a suspicion of any apparent restrictions on this freedom have been a continual feature of democratic self-assertion. In Britain, the Kinder Scout trespass of 1932, when 400 protestors attempted to walk on land in the Derbyshire peaks closed off as grouse moors, was a mixture of new democratic assertion of rights of public access with claims to traditional rights which had been eroded or subverted.29 In the United States the road plans of Robert Moses in New York were criticised for being designed to restrict bus access and hence keep the black and the poor out of Jones Beach Park.30 This claim has been disputed, but public access, and the identity of those who enjoy it, persists as a contested element in the politics of identity. In the public provision of health and education, services available equally to all members of a population express an egalitarianism which is conversely rejected in selective availability and different levels of access or quality according to status or ability to pay.
In the spaces within which people move, and the buildings they use and inhabit, equality or hierarchy can be found. Collegiate inward-facing seating, as in the British House of Commons or the choirs and chancels of older churches, contrasts with the arrangement of meetings where officers, leaders, or representatives are raised on platforms facing the rest of the assembly or community who are, as mere spectators, spatially separate. The palaces of presidents and monarchs are met in democratic Glasgow by the public tea rooms and galleries of the People's Palace.
Neither the conflict between the sovereign identity of the people and the governing identity of their rulers, nor that between the collective identity of the sovereign people and the sovereign identity of each individual, is readily, if ever, resolvable. An ultimately unsuccessful solution to the first, with implications for the second, is to present either the state or the ruler as the highest form of the identity of the subject/citizen, so that in exercising authority over the citizens, the ruler/state is not in conflict with their self-creating authority, but developing it to its fullest extent. This was Rousseau's account of the General Will. But such a solution denies variety or individuality, and proposes a comprehensive and orthodox common identity. Even if it does not do this, but locates individuals in categories which constrain their equal freedom, the result is what Anthony Appiah has termed the Medusa syndrome, whereby individual identity is smothered and ossified by the categories into which people are slotted by others.31
The individual diversity which democratic equality entails draws attention to the second paradox of democracy. If a democratic society is a society of equals, its solidarity must rest on some set of common values or characteristics. But the more precisely those values and characteristics are specified, the greater the numbers of individuals and groups who will not match the pattern. On the one hand is the argument, as put by David Miller, that ‘if we aspire to a form of democratic politics which extends beyond the machinations of a few elected representatives, then a shared nationality is an essential precondition.’32 On the other hand is the argument that if the people are sovereign, then each individual has a share in that sovereignty and a role and a right to cultivate his or her own, rather than a common, identity. One proposed solution is a political identity for the sovereign population but a cultural, religious, and social identity for its individual members. This has been described as civic nationalism by Liah Greenfeld, and as a common national narrative and civil contract by the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks; the intention being that it will provide a container but not a constrainer for diversity, at the same time as cultivating the sovereign identity of the whole people in matters of common concern.33 Such a solution differs from proposals for multiculturalism, which does no more than replace the Medusa gaze of a uniform demos with the Medusa gazes of a variety of community leaders or representatives.
Democratic audit: satire
In democratic or open societies, the leadership is open to constant scrutiny and criticism, and also to praise and commendation. Its continuation in office depends not on universal and unqualified approval, but on free election, and the certainty that however firm its hold on office, it is on approval until the next vote. But whilst the mandate to govern is not revocable from day to day, and a government with a working majority can expect to survive hostile scrutiny, the sovereign people exercise their sovereignty not only by the irregular and occasional act of voting, but by all the actions which they take from day to day, in assessing, commenting on, and passing judgment on the conduct of government. Criticism, protest, condemnation, and satire are essential aspects of the popular sovereignty which justifies the existence of democratic government. And such free voicing of criticism, enquiry, and dissent is necessarily both variegated and changing. There is no one unfaltering voice of the people, but a medley of voices and views. And in such exercise of continuous sovereignty, nothing is off limits: any aspect of the public order and its inhabitants may be praised or pilloried, often with passion and frequently with magnificent disrespect. No part of the state, head of state, official religion, armed forces, politicians, administration, or bureaucracy is or can be immune.
Caveat emptor is a respectable principle in commerce. It applies equally in political life, and the very rhetorical switch which transforms citizens into customers rebounds to assert the right to choose, ignore, praise, or ridicule. Distrust is not only a recurring but an inherent feature of democracies and open societies. Democratic distrust can be vigorously expressed, and ridicule is no more than its vigorous form, as Vivienne Hart has argued in Distrust and Democracy, addressing the fears of those who thought that when citizens, voters, became discontented and disillusioned this was bad for democracy, and that a healthy state depended on rulers, politicians, leaders, being held, if not in awe, then at least in respect bordering on deference.34
In such a view satire is dangerous, and subversive of the respect that is necessary to make government and orderly public life possible. This was the argument of those North American conservatives who in the 1970s argued that there could be too much citizen participation, and that an obedient citizenry was to be sought rather than an active one. Samuel Huntington in 1975 argued that:
[the] essence of the democratic surge of the 1960s was a general challenge to existing systems of authority, public and private. In one form or another, this challenge manifested itself in the family, the university, business, public and private associations, politics, the governmental bureaucracy, and the military services. People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank, status, expertise, character, or talents. Within most organizations, discipline eased and differences in status became blurred. Each group claimed its right to participate equally – and perhaps more than equally – in the decisions which affected itself.35
Democracy could only be saved, it seemed, if there was a lot less of it, and distinction carried an elite of citizens to heights where they were scarcely visible to their distant but inferior associates.
The different view, which Hart presented with great clarity, is that distrust is an expression of a gap between citizens’ expectations of what democratic politics requires, and their perception of how it is in fact being conducted, between the expected and actual identities of rulers. Respect has to be earned, it is not a perk of office. Whilst total alienation may lead to the collapse of social order and good government, and a total disregard for all conventions and rules would dissolve society, unqualified respect and total deference will corrupt a political order in the other direction, and allow very bad government indeed. Those who see themselves as both commanding and enjoying an existing order can sometimes have difficulty distinguishing between criticism and a lack of deference, and insurrection and revolution. One or many critical or satirical voices may not be comfortable, but they do not call the entire basis of rule into question. Such actions by the people may be critical and sceptical, but they are not subversive or revolutionary. It may even be the case that there is only one thing worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. In a democracy, government may be able to live with only a certain degree of indifference, and require at least a minimum of public presence, in however hostile a gaze.
The urge to assess and scrutinise is a response to the otherwise stultifying demotion of the sovereign people to the position of mere subjects. The democratic citizen acts in a range of ways which constitute his or her role as sovereign. But at the same time the regular and daily business of rule is carried out by specialists, officials and politicians of various kinds, for whom there is a continual momentum to distinguish themselves from ordinary citizens, and cultivate a unique and monopolistic governing identity. In this relationship the citizen is subject, not sovereign, but as a democratic subject he or she is nonetheless assertive, sceptical, and unpredictable. The citizen will argue, advise, criticise, complain, and protest, and employ all the forms of opposition which are both made possible by democracy and are a corrective feature of it.
There is a range of dramatic actions where citizens may express a sceptical distance from those in positions of formal authority: carnival and the various forms of festivals of misrule, in which conventional authority is inverted; satire and the heckling of politicians; derisive or humorous election candidatures, such as those of the Monster Raving Loony Party in the United Kingdom. Each of these says to government, in effect, we are keeping an eye on you, and we won't necessarily accept without question what you tell us, or approve without enquiry what you do or propose to do, or the seriousness with which you take yourself. The citizen will not only criticise, assess, complain, and protest, but will also laugh. The refusal to take seriously the actions of public servants, and the willingness to subject them to satirical review, provides a powerful auditing tool for democrats. Satire draws attention to real or alleged incongruities of identity: the evangelist who preaches morality but takes bribes, the politician who assumes grand and heroic postures but is unimaginative and prosaic, the aristocrats who disdain their fellow humans but are uncouth and ignorant themselves. Satire is about identity, the relationship between its layers, and the incongruities and absurdities of its composition. It is most effective when most widely published, and is therefore a feature of democratic and open societies. In closed or autocratic societies, it has to be disseminated covertly and often at great risk.
The freedom to laugh in public about public matters is a freedom of democratic societies. Laughter may not be the most obviously fearsome weapon in the hands of governments or citizens, but it is one which political leaders seem to dislike to a surprising degree. This raises the question of why public figures are so sensitive to satire, and whether there are public figures who are not. In 1954 the two Houses of Parliament of the United Kingdom commissioned Graham Sutherland to produce a portrait of the by then aging prime minister, Winston Churchill. The image of Churchill was not a grand or heroic one, but a picture of an elderly and slightly grumpy-looking man slumped in a chair. The identity portrayed is not one of a charismatic leader in either war or peace. Churchill so disliked the painting that it was destroyed once it was in his possession, on the orders of his wife, Clementine. The powerful can be surprisingly thin-skinned. A man who had been through the Boer War as a reporter, and two world wars as a minister, was wounded by a picture.
In 1991 after the first Gulf War, northern, Kurdish, Iraq was effectively an independent region. One of the fruits of this independence was a broadcasting system free from the control of Baghdad and its ruler, Saddam Hussein. An embellishment of that freedom was a satirical film about the Iraqi dictator, written and directed by the comedian Mahir Hassan Rashid. It was not long before a CD of the programme arrived in Baghdad, and the alleged response of Saddam Hussein was to send a team of assassins north to eliminate the entire cast. They were not successful, though the actor/comedian who played Saddam Hussein then had six attempts on his life in the next four years, and went into hiding.36 Paintings may not always be safe under democracy, but in general painters are. So are writers. In 2014 Hilary Mantel published a short story which imagined the assassination, in 1983, of the prime minister and Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher.37 There was some criticism from those who regarded such a speculation as in bad taste, a criticism which became louder when the BBC broadcast the tale as part of their Book at Bedtime series the following year. Mantel was accused of producing a ‘sick’ product of a ‘sick mind’, and the interesting claim was made that if the BBC ‘really was independent it would avoid doing things that were provocative’.38 But statements of dismay and disapproval were the extent of the reaction. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures in the United States was about to release a satire which imagined a plot to assassinate the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The government of North Korea responded with accusations of an act of war, and made loud if unenacted threats of ‘merciless’ retaliation.39 Satire might not threaten the power of autocrats, but it can damage their self-esteem whether or not their subjects have access to it. The knowledge that you are being laughed at is enough, and the desire or need of rulers for the cultivation of grand and noble identities can trump all other calculations of power or advantage.
If satire can be so disconcerting to despots who apparently dominate their population without any need to obtain its assent, it is not surprising that in democracies laughter can be an even more powerful weapon in the hands of the opponents or critics of rulers. The freedom to laugh is an important privilege of democratic societies, and an important component of their power. The workings of that power are given fictional examination in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The novel revolves around a mystery in a library, and it emerges that at the centre of things is a book that is both sought by some and closely guarded by others. When the secret is finally revealed, it is that those who guarded the secret were afraid of laugher. The thing which the monk Jorge, the defender of the status quo, most feared and set out to suppress was Aristotle on humour. Laughter may not be the most obviously fearsome weapon in the hands of citizens, but it is one which, like the mouse proverbially alarming the elephant, unsettles the complacence of power.
Being in either coercive physical or legitimate democratic control seems never to be enough, and rulers, at least in mobilised societies, fear the voice of the small boy who cries out that the emperor's clothes are not as substantial as claimed. To suggest this is an extension into an account of identity of Weber's argument that the fortunate ‘is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune.’40 The need to cultivate and defend a comprehensive identity which celebrates and justifies one's status is hugely powerful. Satire undermines identity by ridiculing its inconsistencies, limitations, or pretensions; it not only says that the emperor has no clothes, but that it is possible to laugh at the ones that he does have. The cartoonist Low's regular characterisation of the Labour and then national government minister the railway trade unionist Jimmy Thomas, who had a predilection for the high life, as ‘The Rt Hon Dress Suit MP’, was not unkind, but was certainly effective, and concentrated on the alleged social ambitions of a man who in his own presentation of himself was a straightforward and blunt trade-union politician (figure 9).
In autocracies, satire undermines how rulers see themselves. In democracies it undermines both the self-esteem of elites and the deference of citizens. That is why rulers of all kinds react so violently, not only to the laughter, but to the fact that someone doesn't take them seriously, or rather is seen and heard not to take them seriously, and to be out of their control. It is not just what the small boy says, but the fact that he can say it.
A part of the discomfort that satire can cause governments may lie in the disparity between the vernacular language of satire and the official language of government. Satire is vernacular politics rather than elite politics. This does not mean that it is ‘the true voice of the people’. But it can be another voice, the vulgar, untutored voice of the small boy or the peasant. It means, too, that it can be sometimes offensive, tasteless, and not always successfully funny. Satire against Queen Victoria and Albert in the nineteenth century, or the elitist snobberies to be found in Private Eye in the twentieth, can be crude and offensive. Such unpredictability and freedom from the constraints of good taste is the price to be paid for Internet sites such as the Onion from the United States, and magazines and newspapers such as Private Eye in Britain or the Portadown News from Northern Ireland, which was so effective, or offensive, according to your tastes, that it managed to enrage both unionists and nationalists. W. C. Fields remarked that no one who hated children and dogs could be all bad. One might say equally that no one who manages to infuriate both Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams can be wholly without merit.
Rulers dislike satire because it can call them to account, and does so not in their own terms or on their own ground, but by means of one of the few political devices which they are unable effectively to use themselves. Satire both illuminates and excludes them. Because satire comes from below, and attacks precisely the things that are settled, established, dignified, and in control, it is necessarily subversive. When it is not, when it is attempted from above, it can too easily appear tasteless or triumphalist. Political leaders can be witty and amusing, particularly at each other's expense but also, amongst the most skilled, at their own expense. In the United Kingdom, Tony Blair told a audience which greeted him with applause to calm down because he hadn't gone yet; Margaret Thatcher joked about a film poster announcing ‘The Return of the Mummy’; Neil Kinnock appeared as a nuisance political canvasser in a 1984 pop video for a song by Tracy Ullman. But on a larger stage, government is not good at humour, and frequently lacks the light touch or the imaginative vulgarity which fuels vernacular satire. Official cartoons are solemn or vindictive, and when political parties satirise or stigmatise, they are more often vituperative or fanatical than amusing. British government cartoon posters of the First World War, or Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to and during the second, were unpleasant, but not usually funny. But the further they move towards artistic responsibility, and the more stages there are between them and their official patrons, the more amusing and undeferential cartoons are capable of being. The heavy hand of official humour – ‘Chemical Ali’ or ‘Doctor Germ’ – lacks the easy zing of ‘the toxic Texan’ or ‘Blairforce One’, and the denunciations of their opponents by totalitarian regimes, as traitors, running dogs of capitalist imperialism, or subverters of the nation's heritage, almost always lack any style or wit. Since the essence of satire is to deflate those persons and institutions who take themselves over-seriously or with great gravitas, gravitas is not the best place from which to generate or direct it. A ‘real’ or ‘grass-roots’ satire can do it without the malice which seems to sit more easily with ‘official’ satire. The difference between rulers and the ruled can be the difference between satire and demonisation.
But rigid distinctions are usually too simple. If there is a scale, with the solemnity of ‘official’ humour at one end and the lightness of ‘vernacular’ humour at the other, there is too a distinction between the humour associated with closed systems and that associated with open ones. Britain during the First World War could produce the cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather who, despite his semi-official status, could present the life of the ordinary infantry soldier in humorous rather than heroic terms.41 In the Second World War, posters warning that ‘careless talk costs lives’ could, as well as taking the dramatic form of lurking spies and deadly gossip, portray the Nazi leadership, Hitler and Goering, as cartoon characters sitting on a bus eavesdropping on the gossip of two passengers.
Political humour and satire, despite their frequent capacity to disconcert, are still instruments of limited effect. ‘Take the toys from the boys’ was effective feminist deflation of military gravitas in the campaign against the siting of cruise missiles in the United Kingdom. But when John Humphrys, interviewing Tony Blair on the Today Programme, suggested that if the military threat from a Middle-Eastern nation were ever again used by the government as a reason for the UK to commit its troops abroad, everyone would laugh, the prime minister was disconcerted but no more. George Orwell was equally optimistic when he predicted that fascism with goose-stepping militia could never succeed in Britain, ‘because the people in the street would laugh.’42 If Humphrys and Orwell were right, it was a real check, but laughter has a short memory.
Even open societies limit speech by laws of libel and slander, but there is a frontier here which the smugglers of political information can sometimes cross to the advantage of citizens. Satire can enable things to be said which cannot be said. It enables messages to be passed in code which could not be passed directly. Private Eye was able to communicate information about what became the Profumo scandal before anything could be said in the more mainstream media, writing, for those who could read the code, about the antics of ‘gay, fun-loving Miss Gaye Funloving’.43
There is something of the relation between overdrafts and creditworthiness in the prevalence of satire: the only people who can get them are those who don't need them. Humour is only an effective weapon against regimes and governments which, whilst they do not like it, do not find it intolerable, or are constrained by their espousal of freedom and democracy not to try to prevent it. Satire is an instrument of democracy, and one which will work only in democracies. So, paradoxically, whilst it may be a defence against bad government and an incitement to good government, it works best where government is already at the good end of the scale, and hardly works at all where it is most needed. There is, therefore, for those who seek satire as the secret weapon of democrats, a problem, in that satire is most effective in regimes against whom it is least necessary. Satire is a resource of citizens, rather than of those who are deprived of citizenship. Its presence is in part a symptom as much as a cause of open and intelligent politics.
Doubt is cast on the political relevance of satire by those who claim that it is not serious politics. This was the objection of some on the left to George Bernard Shaw, that by laughing at evils, people accept and come to tolerate them. In this view satire functions in a similar way to sour grapes, as a sufficient response to what is feared, despised, or disagreed with, and laughter necessarily not only ridicules, but trivialises. Satire can also be seen as an alternative to conflict. The late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century German social theorist George Simmel claimed that some degree of discord could be a source of stability in society, the lords of misrule being a way of expressing resentments whilst making their causes acceptable – lords of misrule being the alternative to alternative lords, and rebellion.44
So can satire be a diversion, a kind of bread and circuses to keep the intellectuals happy? It can certainly be an alternative to wounding attacks. In the House of Commons, William Hague as Conservative leader was consistently witty and often devastatingly satirical at the expense of the prime minister, Tony Blair. But this did not markedly help the party in opposition in either hampering or embarrassing the government, or in advancing their own electoral fortunes. It may be that, to be effective, satire has to come from outside the circle of the powerful, otherwise it appears to ordinary citizens little more than a private fight.
John Stuart Mill argued that ‘The amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained,’45 a concise advocacy of creative distinction. The point applies equally to sceptics and satirists. One mark of the position of a state on the scale from despotism to openness and democracy, and of the corresponding degree of popular sovereignty, is the absence or presence of open satire, and the response of rulers to ridicule, as is their attitude towards free expression in general. Secret satire can exist in oppressive regimes, but its very secrecy is an indication of the lack of freedom. Conversely, one mark of the character of a body of subjects or citizens is the authority with which its members say and do whatever they please. There are many reasons to be sceptical about the effects of the World Wide Web, but even so the number of Internet cafés in a country is probably a better rough guide to the reality of its freedoms than are the formal clauses in its constitution.46
Satire has been described as the canary down the mineshaft of political power. The problem with this metaphor is that if there is gas down there, the canary is dead. Laughing at a government to test its liberality can be a dangerous exercise in political testing, since the satirist may end up just like the canary, if not gassed, then at least caged. Even within democracies, would-be autocrats of one kind or another will assume that violence is justified in responding to their critics. The choices for the sceptical citizen at the two extremes of the spectrum are clear enough. No one would hesitate to publish satires of their rulers in Europe or North America. It would be unwise in China or Zimbabwe. But it is precisely where the atmosphere needs to be tested, and where there is an unstable mix of democracy and autocracy, liberty and control, in twenty-first century Turkey or Iran, that whilst the test may be of the greatest value, the danger to the brave canary is greatest. Wherever there is a conflict between the desire to laugh and the belief that one's own identity is privileged and must not be challenged or ridiculed, the satirist and the citizen are in danger. In France in 2015 that conflict, between aspirant authoritarians and a free press, led to murder. We may not think of comedians or cartoonists as the front-line troops in the war for liberal democracy and popular sovereignty. But they can often be the forward patrols who test the terrain, with all the dangers that entails. They deserve support and gratitude, as well as just laughter.
To be able to laugh at others and at oneself requires a level of critical reflection and awareness of identity which is not achieved if life is guided entirely by habit and deference. Unpredictability is a characteristic of democracy. Just as Mill gauged cultural vigour by the numbers of eccentrics, so the extent of a democratic society and the existence and vitality of a demos can be gauged by the extent of unpredictability and variety of identities. This raises a paradox, since if a vigorously democratic demos must expect not simply variety but eccentricity, troublemaking, and bloody-mindedness, one of the characteristics which some of its members may well display will be a disinclination to engage in politics at all, but to pursue whatever private activities they choose. A single public identity is the last thing that a healthy demos will exhibit.
Satire provides one of many audits of government in a democracy. In that sense it is, whilst a feature of democracy, a road test on its healthy operation rather than a constituent part of its everyday life. That everyday life is composed of the multifarious details of public life, including what Ferdinand Mount has described as the ‘myths and rituals which a regime has allowed or, more usually, encouraged to grow up around itself’.47 A prime minister on a bicycle is different from one in a limousine, just as a citizen who is treated with courtesy by a public servant is different from one who is patronised or ignored. In a society where the rulers are also the ruled, the servants the masters, it is as true as elsewhere that if you have seen the servants, you do not need to see the master.
Carnival and masking, the lords of misrule: the people's last resort before revolution
When laughter is dangerous, it can be presented in a form so outrageous that, as a brief departure from the manners and conventions of daily life, it can, at one level, be dismissed as a brief but temporary excess, a reversal of the normal but not, by that very fact, a threat. That is the character of carnival and of the various festivals in medieval and later Europe, where lords of misrule of one kind or another parodied the normal hierarchies of church or state, and the normal identities of rulers and ruled, if only for a day. Carnival can be threatening if erupting from below, or effective at diverting threats if inspired from above, since it visibly subverts existing identities, and the more carefully they have been cultivated, the more elaborately they are subverted. The inverted order of carnival sets up boy bishops, not boy cobblers.
In Coventry in 1480, traditional rituals and practices were employed by groups of citizens in an extreme way in order to defend what they saw as their established rights against the claims and actions of the prior of St Mary's. Their actions neither sustained the order nor challenged it, but engaged in politics within its general landscape by pushing its practices close to their limits, in one case by blocking the entrance to the priory with dung and rubbish.48 The limits had been pushed further in Norwich in 1443, when traditional Shrove Tuesday processions were anticipated many weeks early as a means of protesting against a ruling by the Earl of Suffolk in a dispute between the city and the abbot of St Benet's Hulme over water mills.49 But such a form of cocking a snook at authority can be unstable; either it is so bizarre but so harmless that it does indeed serve to contain resentment and justify the continuation of the existing order of things, or the resentment which it briefly masks is so intense that, as in Romans in southern France at the end of the sixteenth century, it becomes the vehicle and springboard for rebellion. In Romans in 1579, the Feast of St Blais, the patron saint of drapers, provided the occasion for an armed parade. There was, too, a reynage, the election of a ‘king’ of the celebrations. This may not have inverted the existing social and political order, but it provided a brief parody version of it. But in 1579 the assembled craftsmen, ploughmen, and other citizens elected not just a king of misrule, but a long-term leader for their political campaign of grievances against taxation and privilege. In 1580 at carnival, the chosen popular leader, Paumier, regularly went around dressed as the Candlemas Bear, a symbol also associated with St Blais, bringing together both political and religious authority, and a parody of both. The events of February 1580, culminating in a coup and massacre by the old elite of the town against the leaders and members of the popular movement, was also conducted through the organisation of carnival, feasting, processions, and dancing, the latter providing the context within which the organisation and the carrying out of the attack on the popular forces took place.50 In Romans, the authorities used carnival, a carnival of their own, as a mask for something much more bloody. But this was unusual. It was in France too, over two centuries later, that fear of what carnival and misrule might be about to become led once again to repression. In revolutionary France, the authorities banned the wearing of masks and carnival cross-dressing as concealing counter-revolutionary or royalist intent.51 Carnival may be the last resort of an excluded population, a feature of a society not only far from democratic but only partially mobilised, but it may also be the last resort of a dominant class to avoid revolution and allow discontent to evaporate into popular circuses.
The problem of professional rulers and the tension between sovereign democrats and their agents
Active citizens will not be indifferent to the identity of their leaders and in a democracy, and in a particular manner, the expressed identity of rulers and leaders is crucial, since citizens, whether they see rulers as leaders or as instruments, will expect to see in them a fuller expression of their own identity. The permanent tension within democracy means that the people are the players, and therefore expect those who are full-time players to be like them, whilst at the same they expect them to be exceptional versions of themselves, themselves as they might be, themselves transformed and elevated, yet still in touch with their roots. It is always an impossible paradox. The logic of liberal representative democracy is that its leaders will be superordinary, though Ian Buruma has suggested that the limitations this can place on ambitious self-presenters causes democratic leaders to strut on the world stage because they cannot strut at home.52 A monarch or a theocrat has no constraints in publicly proclaiming his or her superiority, special insight into divine law, high breeding, or outstanding qualities of understanding and leadership. Democratic leaders must in one sense believe themselves to be superior, but in a system which even formally and occasionally is described as government by the people, there are strong incentives for them to describe themselves as pretty ordinary guys or gals. There are striking instances of this even in the modification of monarchies, which, far from being their transformation or abolition, are adaptations to democratic expectations in nations from the United Kingdom to Japan.53 When Marie Antoinette dressed as a peasant at the Petite Trianon, it was for the entertainment of herself and her courtiers. When democratic leaders do it, it is to entertain and to entice their citizen subjects.
In democratic states there is a confusion and a tension between the equality which all people share as rulers, and the distinction which exists between the same people in their identity as ordinary subjects of the state and the specialised groups who carry out the day-to-day business of government. There is a continuing tension between democracy as government by the people, which means that the people rule, and democracy as government for the people, a tension which economic liberals have attempted to resolve by replacing or overlaying it with a consumer sovereignty in which the people are the customers but not the shopkeepers.
If the people are both rulers and ruled, then in some aspects of their lives they must be subordinate to others, officers or servants of the state. The pull towards association and equality on the one hand is met by the pull towards distinction and authority on the other. This is evident in every aspect of life in societies which claim to be democratic. On the one hand there can be an advocacy of democratic and egalitarian plumage, on the other a continual striving for distinction. Mao jackets and the universal title ‘comrade’ arrive to cultivate equality and solidarity, and the egalitarian title is rapidly qualified by the suffix ‘chairman’, ‘general’, or ‘manager’. The French Revolution of 1789 was wracked by just such stresses, apparently about little more than clothing, but in fact about the whole character of a democratic society and state, and part of the ambivalence of people as simultaneously rulers and subjects. In universities that seek the common identity of teachers and scholars, ‘professor’ is the title for all, but is simultaneously qualified by the prefixes ‘full’, ‘associate’, or ‘foundation’.
The greater the degree of democracy, the more it matters what feathers the demos wears, as well as what leaders wear. The identity of the citizen is an essential component of a democratic society. But government in whatever form attempts to acquire, patronise, regulate, and customise appearances and ritual for purposes which it leads and guides. The cultivation of all the aspects and dimensions of identity is a vital dimension of the ordering and management of political life, and a recurring aspiration of political leadership. In revolutionary France, a society compelled to include the masses, and hence to abolish the distinctiveness of a class of rulers, reintroduced order and predictability by constructing or cultivating other distinctions of both office and gender.54 In seventeenth-century revolutionary England, the rebellion against royal autocracy transmuted into the repression of leveller and digger egalitarianism.
Being governed is being subject to rules and hence to uniformity and solidarity. Governing, on the other hand, is or can be dynamic and unpredictable. This is why the term democracy refers to a form of life which is different from that of all other regimes. Since the people are not only governed, but the governors, they too are unpredictable and dynamic. It is, though with difficulty, possible to imagine a state with civil society and a free, variegated, and unpredictable populace which is nonetheless not a democracy. It might be argued that empires can be like this, but in fact if empires are a form of pluralist government of governments, then the population is not free from particular rulers, but is simply not directly subject to the overall imperial sovereign. Alternatively, civil society in a homogeneous centralised empire will be intolerant of local civil society.
The tension in identity between association and equality, and distinction and inequality, is reproduced in the paradox of the push and pull between the perennial ambitions of government and the continual impetus to political inequality, and the continual assertion of democratic identity, the continual stress between the urge to govern and the democratic temperament, between the stubborn, sometimes bloody-minded, sometimes brave and enduring insistence from within the people of their sovereignty, and the sustained, relentless impetus of rulers, governors, elites, and managers, to preside, and to preside with presiding identities. Within the sovereign identity of the demos there is a further paradox, a never-resolvable stress between the desire for solidarity and homogeneous identity, and a forever renewed resistance to the freezing stare of Medusa and an insistence that if the people are sovereign, then each one of them has an inalienable right to cultivate his or her own identity, and to resist either the inclusion or the exclusion which is an unavoidable feature of the bear hug of one great all-enveloping national character. The tensions and paradoxes of democratic identity are inherent and inescapable. And they are crowned by the overarching paradox that they are the source both of democracy's instability, and of its vitality and survival.