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The problem with liberal democracy

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 11 January 2006


To suggest that there is a fundamental problem with liberal democracy is to court being labelled the worst kind of traitor, or to join the sorry breast-beating mob that insists all the evils of the world are due to the West. Its supporters insist that while it is not a perfect system, it is the best system of ordering society and government that has ever come to be. Frances Fukuyama has even gone so far as to suggest liberal democracy represents the end of history and that it is the end of our efforts to produce the best government for the most people. No further progress in political and social organisation is possible, political history has reached its high point and end.

Since liberal democracies witnessed the end of the Cold War, without a shot fired, there has arisen a smug assurance that this is the natural form of government for all the people of the world and it should be established by force if necessary. Certainly we must admit it is a fine system that produces boundless freedom and seemingly endless economic growth. Indeed it seems churlish to criticise such a system that has so many runs on the board.

However, I have recently come across a trenchant criticism of liberal democracy, not from an economist, or a political scientist, or a sociologist, but unexpectedly from a theologian. This criticism does not rely on the disappointment Lefties have felt that their ideology has gone out the window, but in an examination of the kind of body that liberal democracy produces. In his slim book Theopolitical Imagination, William Cavanaugh, who teaches theology at the University of St Thomas, St Paul Minnesota, contrasts the structure of the social body produced by liberal democracy with that outlined for the church by the apostle Paul.

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State soteriology has tried to unify humankind by incorporation into a body of a grotesque sort. Beginning with an anthropology of formally equal individuals guided by no common ends, the best the state can hope to do is to keep these individuals from interfering in each other’s rights. While this can serve to mitigate the conflictual effects of individualism, it cannot hope to enact a truly social process. The body that is enacted is a monstrosity of many separate limbs proceeding directly out of a gigantic head.

This is the body left to us by liberal democracy: because we understand ourselves as self-created individuals who have inherent rights, we do not see that we are only what we are because of the person next to us. Rather than relate to each other, each of whom have competing rights, we must relate directly to government. Hence Cavanaugh’s image of the many separate limbs: the isolated individual, relating only to the gigantic head of government which controls all things, exercises coercion, dispenses resources, heals the sick and looks after the poor.

The social pathology we experience grows directly out of the inadequacy of this body to form us into a full humanity which is only to be found in our relatedness to each other. Politics is centrifugal, it relates only along the line of the individual to central government. Politics becomes an activity dominated by the lobby groups of sectional interest, each fighting for the resources it thinks it needs. Since the state is seen as the sole saviour, it is to the state that we appeal for help for the poor and the sick and the helpless.

By contrast, the body that Paul describes is composed of many parts all of whom have their parts to play: all different, all essential. The sanctity of the individual is not based on the equality of rights but on the knowledge that each is created in the image of God. Furthermore these parts of the body are interconnected, if one part suffers the whole of the body suffers. Jesus may be the head of this body but its members related to him via the other members as is described in Matthew 25:31ff. This is a body proper, consisting of interrelated members bound together by the love of the head and of each other. They do not need the notion of human rights that only succeeds in setting one against another. They do not see each member set over against the other in competition. Rather, they share everything in common. They share a common vision in the kingdom of God and therefore can act in a decisive fashion.

The liberal view is that there is “no such thing as community, only the individual” (Thatcher) or similarly, that there is no such thing as an Anglican or Catholic view, only views of individuals (Howard). Liberalism is antagonistic to any social grouping that interferes with the isolated individual and that individual’s choices (a liberal buzz word). This is so because the idea that the basis of society resides in the relationships between its members threatens the liberal construction of society.

The origin of these ideas may be found in Hobbes and Lock and the social contract. The result is that liberal democracy seeks to silence all other voices that oppose, it especially when these voices belong to groups of people who share a common goal such as the church or unions. So, while masquerading as being for free speech it quickly censors the voice of community bodies. Religion is not allowed to be a voice of a community, it must be relegated to the private where is it is easily relativised.

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The dominant position of the nation state is defended by a few misreadings of history that can only be described as propaganda as Rodney Stark has discovered. For example, it is commonly thought that the nation state arose as a solution to sectarian violence. The wars that followed the Reformation in Europe were designated wars of religion and the myth was propagated that it was the nation state that brought them under control. In fact, the wars were fought on behalf of nation states using religion as a motivating force. A brief survey of the history of war reveals that we have far more to fear from aggression between nation states than between religions.

It is far too easy to label the conflict in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and now Iraq as wars of religion and ignore their political origins. It is also ridiculous to label Jesus as a warrior leading his disciples into battle. And yet most pledge allegiance to the nation state, surely the cause of most of our trouble, rather than the church.

The other bugbear that is dragged out to support the nation state against the church is of course the excesses of theocracy in the form of inquisitions, the burning of witches and heretics and Puritanism. Again it is difficult to sheet this home to the gentle Galilean. A distinction must be made between the true nature of the church and its misuse by fearful and superstitious men.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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