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Not "Tyranny of the Majority" but "Tyranny of the Wealthy Minority"

The cliche about democracy being a possible "tyranny of the majority" was gibbered in my vicinity recently, reminding me again of how I hate this supposed nugget of "wisdom" almost as much as I despise the spurious appeals to human nature that are used to defend capitalism.

What is it about these pitiful aphorisms that makes them so popular? The cliche is taken as an argument in and of itself: "Golly it must be so because I have this cool quote I picked up somewhere that I can't remember."

This time the "tyranny of the majority" nonsense was uttered by someone who thought he was an authority on the matter simply because he had a doctorate. Of course, the fact that his doctorate concerned the philosophy of science apparently did not disqualify him from making truth statements about areas outside of his expertise. Nor did his vaunted love of formal logic prevent him from using a cliche as an argument.

The idea that democracy, especially this liberal democracy, is a "tyranny of the majority" is the sort of half-baked crap ruling class reactionaries have been whining about for millenia. Yes, millenia: I am not simply being rhetorical. Although he did not use the same words as Tocqueville, Plato clearly was afraid of a "tyranny of the majority" since he assumed that the crude masses were responsible for Socrates' death. Except that, in Plato's case, the democracy he assumed was a tyranny of the majority was really a tyranny of the minority considering that slaves, foreigners, and women were denied the ability to vote or participate in the polis as full human beings.

Then there was J.S. Mill, the humanitarian liberal who thought that universal suffrage would lead to a tyranny of the crude and backward masses who would pass class legislation and thus steal the privileges of their betters. He thought that people in the ruling classes, and especially intellectuals, should have more than one vote to prevent this feared tyranny.

The point I am trying to make is that the liberal democracy of every so-called "democratic" society is not and has never been a "tyranny of the majority." Parliamentarian voting never threatens the rights of the few to oppress the majority. The ruling classes, the absurdly wealthy individuals, never have to worry about the mobs showing up at their mansion doorsteps and tyrannizing them by expropriating all their beloved property. Really, our democracy is just a bunch of ruling class parties who, to paraphrase Lenin, are arguing amongst themselves on how to best "misrepresent the people."

Aside from those cases where the "tyranny of the majority" is quoted by lifestyle anarchists (whose idiot love of rugged individualism is behind their pseudo-radicalism), usually the cliche implies that the privileged are mad that they aren't living in some golden age of individual privilege that never existed.

"Must the masses I work to death in my factories tyrannize me with their demand for more wages? How will I ever make more billions with their oppressive democratic sentiments?"

We should remember that Tocqueville coined the maxim in response to his ruling class fears of another French Revolution and the Terror leveled against the monarchy. Oh, those poor monarchists whose freedom was guillotined away by the tyrannizing masses. It is the nobility, after all, who possess the God-given right to be tyrants, not the people.

Personally I wish we lived in a society where the masses could "tyrannize" the wealthy minority who currently control their destinies. We communists who come from a Leninist tradition call this the dictatorship of the proletariat and, unlike the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie - where the class structure and ruling class constitution always enshrine a class tyranny of the minority - we don't pretend there is anything wrong with suppressing/tyrannizing/liquidating the terms of the ruling class(es).

Much of the fear still harboured towards great (though admittedly messy) moments of mass liberation like the Cultural Revolution express the horror the privileged experience whenever they think the masses they oppress are going to pursue radical equality. The problem, however, is that calling these moments of possible human liberation "tyranny" obscures the reality of tyranny. If the aim of the dictatorship of the proletariat is to remove class oppression altogether, how can it possess the same essence of tyranny that capitalist (even capitalist democratic) oppression must, by its very nature, pursue?

This is not to say that there are moments of mob reactionism where entire populations can be mobilized against their own interests, taught to scape-goat oppressed minorities, and become tyrannical. These instances, however, are not "tyrannies of the majorities" because these are always moments where large groups of people are manipulated by a wealthy minority to enshrine the privilege of this majority. Fascism is not the "tyranny of the majority" because it has always been about protecting the ruling class and its property and eradicating mass equality. The Tea Party movement in the U.S., for example, is the result of callous ruling class manipulation. In fact, the entire movement was funded and organized by the Koch family, one of the wealthiest billionaire families in the U.S.

If only the wealthy minority could be tyrannized by the masses they exploit in order to become wealthy. In hope of a real and progressive "tyranny of the majority", it is worth studying this list published by Forbes, defender of the wealthy rulers, to know who will be worth "tyrannizing" in the future:

Ah, look at the smiling enemies of the people. Notice how the Tea Party Koches are at number five (they are also the 24th richest in the world). Surprisingly a woman has made it into slot four this year - she wouldn't even be at the bottom slot of this list four decades ago, and I'm sure her male counterparts are complaining that the tyranny of the majority is the reason women are on this list of 400. Indeed, women are a minority on the list which, by and large, consists of white men. (Except Oprah made slot 130, which probably explains her love of bourgeois ideologies like The Secret... Sorry fans of Oprah, she is not looking out for your best interests: she is part of the tyranny of the minority, a class enemy!)


  1. yeah but she took people to australia!!! (opera.)

  2. I knew that ending this with the Oprah mention would side-track the conversation! It is interesting to note,though, that she is the only black woman (and only one of two black persons) on this 400 person list. Once again demonstrating how race/gender are connected to class. Reactionaries are freaked out about affirmative action but, when it really comes down to it, white men are still the super bourgeois.

  3. The tyranny of the majority bothers me almost as much as the silent majority. Perhaps they are one and the same...

  4. Yes, the "tyranny of the majority" idea is an extremely problematic idea in that it is bound up with the history of asserting a hierarchy in which the "many" are associated with stupidity, appetities and the incapacity for self-determination, and thus in need of guidance from the fewer (or one) enlightened expert who knows others better than they know themselves. But while JS Mill's use of it is definitely bound up with this legacy (and particularly racializing forms of it), when he used the phrase in On Liberty he did, at the same time, touch on an important point that is worth saving: the majority becomes tyrannical to the extent that it is blindly conformist. It becomes tyrannical to the extent that it does not critically evaluate the messages and laws it is fed by leaders who are acting from on high. When I think of the tyranny of the majority in that light, I think nationalism and jingoism, intolerant populism, the mania of people gravitating around dumb and empty slogans ("stop the gravy train!"): in short, complete hostility to democratic organizing and relations. I also think of people who vote in the leader who will screw them over the most -- and who will get tough on unions and immigrants etc.

  5. Point taken about that sort of "tyranny of the majority", NB, but I would argue (as I hinted in th post) that this is only a "tyranny of majority" in form rather than essence. When the masses are mobilized against their interest it is because of the activities of that tyrannical ruling class minority and their ideology. Again, the Koch family behind the Tea Party is a good example of this mobilization. Historical fascist movements, where the masses were mobilized by the elite, are other examples. This is something Mill, himself sympathetic to the interests of the elite, could not understand.

    Nor were Mill's fears aimed at the empty populism you've mentioned: his corn dealer (or was it grain merchant?) example, near the beginning of "On Liberty" demonstrates his actual concerns. He didn't want a mob of angry workers showing up at the factory owner's door to complain about property. And that sort of mass mobilization, the type that Mill feared, is the mass mobilization behind radical liberation movements.

  6. "Historical fascist movements, where the masses were mobilized by the elite, are other examples. This is something Mill, himself sympathetic to the interests of the elite, could not understand."

    That's not true. This is precisely what Mill identified as the always present potential of liberal democracy: it is possible that the people will be mobilized by a charismatic someone who claims to speak for them, and that such a leader will thereby be equivalent in power to the kind of absolute monarch that liberal democracy was supposed to make impossible. This is the problem that Mill explicitly associated with the "tyranny of the majority": liberal democracy is always threatened to regress to illiberal authoritarianism.

    It is true, though, that Mill associated any opposition to the free market with regression, backwardness and savagery (though the example you mention was one he used in a discussion of why freedom of speech requires limits of decorum etc if it is to contribute to the development of a conscientious citizenry). Mill is definitely not a socialist in any meaningful sense of the term.

    So it is contradictory: Mill opposes anti-capitalist/imperialist resistance, but he also opposes the kind of authoritarianism that capitalism and liberal democracy makes possible.

  7. In that rather hasty comment I meant to say that Mill couldn't understand the class content behind potential populist [fascist] movements - this lack of understanding had nothing to do with his fear of a relapse into absolutist monarchy (that, yes, the liberals were always afraid of). The example I mentioned was much more than simply "freedom of speech" - speech is free, not actions that harm the class interests of the merchant. This is the general liberal contradiction, after all, where "equal rights" play out within a context defined by the free market, the rupture of political freedom from economic freedom, the rights-over-needs core of liberalism.

  8. I want to take you seriously, but the tea party (if anything) has the potential to be as threatening to the rich, wall-street types, as any other ideology out there. you won't (or can't) see this, right? the marxist lens blurs all... get this, they have the same myth of the tyrannical rich, special interest, cabal of individuals who is funding the death of 'america' (ala the george soros of the world).

    there is a sick irony in your post, in all of your posts, that i am not sure you are aware of it. it is a tyranny in it's own right, one of subduing people experience to concepts of a text that is tautological and claims to some sort of political universal. there is no freedom of ideas in this ideological tradition.

  9. Beginning a comment with "I want to take you seriously" when, clearly, you have approached it with a priori ideas about marxism (and claims about "tautology" that are presumed rather than proven) is somewhat unbelievable, no? If you do "want to take me seriously" then you would have understood the distinction I've made between movements like the tea party and genuinely progressive moments.

    Also the comment about the elite group of individuals was partly made in jest. (Half of these posts are marred by humour.) The issue for marxists is always about the class division, not about a tiny cabal of the richest of the rich - though this does, at times, reveal class disparity and bring up genuinely important questions (like why is the supposedly popular Tea Party bank-rolled by the Koches?).

    And the comment about the marxist "lens" blurring experience shows that you don't understand - and have not read those posts where I've discussed this - what it means to be a critical marxist. There are posts where I'm overly polemical (out of humour and haste, this is a blog), but there are also posts (you said "all of my posts") where I discuss the actual meaning of "historical materialism" (i.e. "The Science of History" posts, "The Three-Headed Beast" interblog discussion) that would provide an argument, at least, for why marxism - or at least my actual understanding of marxism - is not, as you (somewhat naively) suggest a tautology that claims universality. It's more than that...

    Also, the position you are uncritically assuming through your criticism is a much more distorting lens, perhaps? - the unquestioned "common sense" (which I jokingly dealt with in other posts) view of reality.

    So to say I'm not sure of the content of "all of [my] posts" is a rather disingenuous statement to make considering that it doesn't seem like you've actually read, in any real way, "all of" of my posts.

    And finally, many of these posts are meant to be ironic, considering that many of them (like a lot of the early comics) are exercises in self-mockery...

    Is it "sick irony"? Maybe.

  10. What a great post! I especially loved this: " lifestyle anarchists (whose idiot love of rugged individualism is behind their pseudo-radicalism)." That's truly well said.

    "Parliamentarian voting never threatens the rights of the few to oppress the majority."

    -Exactly! Every election here in the US is such a sad travesty that it's painful to watch.

  11. Thanks Clarissa, and sorry about my maybe grumpy sounding arguments with you in the other post. I know I came across as some jaded/crusty academic in my response to your human-nature-soviet post, but in general I do really like your blog.

  12. I'm a crusty academic, too, so I know what you mean. :-) I'm glad you wrote that post because it allowed me to discover this great blog. I love learning new stuff from intelligent people, and the post on Cell 16 was really helpful.


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