Category Archives: Democracy

The Will of the People

Frye in The Great Code:

For us democracy, as a source of loyalty, does not mean only the machinery of elections or a greater tolerance of religion and art or a greater relaxation of leisure, privacy, or freedom of movement, but what all these things point to: the sense of an individuality that grows out of society but is infinitely more than a social function. (CW 19, 119)

It is a truism that the results of any election must be respected.

But the fact that 60% of the electorate voted against a government that seeks to polarize the country as a deliberate political strategy, and routinely demonizes the opposition through co-ordinated smear campaigns, says a lot about where we are today. The solid majority of voters who cast ballots against this government may have to respect the results, but they are not required to pretend those results are fully representative of the will of the people. The built-in flaw of our first-past-the-post system is that minority governments more comprehensively represent the majority, while majority governments almost invariably represent a minority. We accept the results, but we understand their limitations and push back against them by way of our constitutional guarantees of free speech and free assembly.

Given their past behavior, the Conservatives will almost certainly press a legislative agenda that will offend the majority that made a particular point to vote against them. It is especially important to remember therefore that democracy is not just about what happens on election day. It is an everyday process. It is a full-time commitment. This government, like all governments, needs to be monitored and the concerns of the majority of citizens who voted against it must be articulated so that they will not be ignored. The next election when it comes ought to be an extension of what we are willing to do from this point on to protect our interests and to support our democratic traditions and institutions. Stephen Harper has tellingly made reference in the past to “real Canadians,” an unacceptable formulation. All Canadians are real Canadians, even if they do not vote for the Conservatives and will continue to vote against them at every opportunity.

It’s worth repeating: government is not our master but our servant. Those who govern may not always remember that, which means that we can never allow them to forget it.

Frye and Tomkins on Democracy and Contempt

In a review of 1984 when it first appeared, Frye writes that the real value of the book is that the author

gives us a terrifyingly clear impression of what we don’t want for either ourselves or our children. Mr. Orwell doesn’t tell us what to fight for, but he gives us a terrifyingly clear impression of what we should fight against. And what we should fight against, according to him, is not Russia or China, not Eurasia or Eastasia, but the evil tendencies in our own minds, our own weak and gullible compromises in a contempt of law and a contempt for truth. (CW 10, 143)

What is it exactly if not these evil tendencies, driven by contempt, that have given the Harper Conservatives permission to compromise their consciences, to lie, deceive, break rules and the law, cheat, conceal, refuse to answer questions, de-route all democratic process, and generally engage in vindictive attacks on perceived enemies and malign and smear honest public servants who inconveniently speak the truth? The great psychologist and affect theorist Silvan Tomkins–like Frye, a genius with a grand theory–postulates that at the heart of contempt is a drive auxiliary that acts like an affect and which he calls “dissmell.” Dissmell is clearest in the sneer, the raised upper lip directed at another, as if other people smelled bad and were not fit for human consumption.

Tomkins points out that in a democracy contempt (which is unilateral dissmell combined with anger) is rarely used (Tomkins calls it the most unappealing affect), because it undermines the assumption of equality and solidarity with others. It is however a central affect in authoritarian and hierarchical societies, where dominance and superiority must be communicated by rejecting and distancing “malodorous” others. Contempt, as Tomkins neatly puts it, is the mark of the oppressor.

In contrast, shame is the affect central in democratic societies, because shame does not sunder the interpersonal bridge: it is not unilateral and only functions when there is already an affluence, a closeness and fellow feeling that is impeded in some way but with only an incomplete reduction of enjoyment or interest. Shame implies an identification with others, and a wish to return to the good scene of communion with the other. Contempt, on the other hand, insists on an unbridgeable distance from the other in the first place, so that there is no good scene to return to. There is no identification with the other. It is a very handy affect if you want to lynch someone, or cheat them out of their life’s savings, or if you are just part of an oligarchy that wants to avoid uncomfortable feelings of guilt (moral shame) for the misery that has been inflicted on the rest of the human population.

Compare for example, the facial display of Dick Cheney with that of Barack Obama. As far as I know, Cheney’s prominently raised upper lip is not due to any physical paralysis of any kind; it is an expression of dissmell. It is hard to imagine a sneer like Cheney’s coming over the features of someone like Obama. So when you have a leader of a government, Stephen Harper, who treats his own fellow citizens with dissmell it is best to be suspicious and wonder about the fate of our democracy.

But as of yet too many Canadian voters seem inert, immobilized, unconcerned with the erosion of democratic institutions and processes, and it is this very situation the Conservatives count on in a fear campaign directed at everybody’s pocket book.  Harper’s government is a perfect example of what Frye calls, in an essay on democracy which I will quote more fully below, a “managerial dictatorship.” Its primary model is a corporation, and thus it is naturally in conflict with democratic principles and processes. The only principles the Conservatives uphold are the rights of Canadians to own unregistered deadly weapons and to pollute the environment in the name of the economy. But, to lift a phrase from Thoreau,“whether we should live like baboons or like men seems a little uncertain.”

In contrast to the current inertia of voters is the famous reversal in the 1993 election when a negative Conservative ad ridiculing Jean Chrétien’s facial paralysis turned the election around on a dime, leaving the Conservatives, by the time the dust had settled, with only two seats in the country. It was an encouraging moment. It was uplifting to know that the voters could say so loudly and clearly that such a mean and ugly attack on a fellow human being and citizen is just not welcome here, thank you very much.

The following paragraph is from an essay Frye wrote in 1950, an essay he wrote for The Varsity, the student newspaper at the University of Toronto. He is not speaking in affective terms, but the antithesis he speaks of is the same:

All governments whatever must be either the expression of the will as a minority holding autonomous power, which is able to impose that will on society as a whole, or the expression of the will of the people as a whole to govern themselves. In the former case there is an antithesis between a ruling class and the ruled classes; in the latter case there is no governing class, but only a group of executives and public servants responsible to society as a whole for what they do. The latter conception is the democratic one.  (CW 11, 235)

“Democracy,” he goes on to say, “ is thus essentially the attempt to preserve law and order in society which has superseded the primitive and outmoded idea of ‘rule.’” We now have a government, of course, that seeks the very opposite: to rule as a minority and actively undermine the preservation of law and order in its own house: the House of Commons. Our House, as Michael so rightly puts it. The Conservatives have been found in contempt of parliament, guilty as charged of obstructing parliament and undermining democracy. Consider this paragraph from Frye in the same essay:

Anti-democratic social action, of the kind intolerable to a democracy must necessarily be in the direction of withdrawing information and action from the community as a whole. It is a contradiction in terms for democracy to tolerate a conspiratorial coup d’etat aimed at the restoration of the old idea of a professional ruling class. (236)

I can’t think of a better way of describing the threat that this country faces right now.


Quote of the Day: “The one genuine revolution of our time”

A Libyan rebel at the frontline near Sultan, south of Benghazi, Libya, Friday, March 18, 2011

With ongoing developments in the Middle East — and the Midwest — in mind, here’s Frye in “On Human Values”:

“Ever since since about two hundred years ago, for a variety of reasons, and for better or worse, man has embarked upon a program of revolution. In the centre of that revolutionary program I see democracy. That seems to me to be the one genuine revolution of our time. . . . Therefore, one cannot identify democracy with a form of government like republic or monarchy. It is a process, and a process which, I should say, following the terms of the French Revolution, is a pursuit of liberty, equality and fraternity. If you pursue liberty and forget about equality you get laissez-faire, which ends in a most abominable tyranny. If you pursue equality and forget about liberty, you get a totalitarian state, which also ends up in an abominable tyranny. And consequently, the central revolutionary process of our time pursues simultaneously liberty and equality.” (CW 24, 15)

(Photo: Anja Niedringhaus/AP)

Frye: “There can be no general elite in a democratic society”

Jon Stewart exposes the hypocrisy of those who begrudge teachers their union-negotiated $50,000 a year plus benefits salaries but also fiercely defend the Bush tax cuts for the top percentile of wage earners and defend the kleptocracy and billion dollar bonuses of Wall Street. Watch the video here.

Frye in The Modern Century captures nicely the sinister forces now openly undermining American democracy, especially a “general elite” employing immediately recognizable agents provocateurs — Ailes, Palin, O’Reilly, Beck, Limbaugh, and so on — who are attempting to consolidate political and economic power while simultaneously instilling confusion, fear and resentment in an already assailed general population through the incessant clanging of tin pot patriotism. Replace “John Birch Society” with “Tea Party,” “nostalgic intellectuals” with “neo-conservatives,” and “those who readily identify themselves as belonging to some kind of elite that a closed myth would produce” with mealy-mouthed white bread demagogues like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann, and this passage is fully up to date:

In the democracies there are many who would like to see a closed mythology take over.  Some are hysterical, like the John Birch Society, who want a myth of the American way of life, as they understand it, imposed on everything. . . . Some are nostalgic intellectuals, usually with a strong religious bias, who are bemused by the “unity” of medieval culture and would like to see some kind of “return” to it.  Some are people who can readily imagine themselves as belonging to some kind of elite that a closed myth would produce.  Some are sincere believers in democracy who feel that democracy is at a disadvantage in not have a clear and unquestioned program of its beliefs. . . [T]here can be no general elite in a democratic society: in a democracy everybody belongs to some kind of elite, which derives from its social function a particular knowledge or skill that no other group has. (CW 11, 66-7)

Everybody belongs to an elite — like, say, teachers and nurses and police officers and fire fighters, who represent their common interests by way of labor unions; much the same way corporations have their common interests represented by Republican legislators and the “corporations are people too” Supreme Court of Roberts/Scalia/Thomas/Alito.

Frye on Democracy, Laissez-Faire and Oligarchy

“Democracy should work as a force for the underprivileged.” Northrop Frye, interview in The Telegram, 25 March 1950

On a couple of occasions I’ve received comments about the political direction the blog takes on current events, typically in the form of “What does this have to do with Frye?” (I get the same thing when it comes to popular culture.) My response has been that Frye was always critically engaged with the world around him, most conspicuously during his decades-long stint at The Canadian Forum. His politics were unambiguously to the left (he was in fact a lifelong social democrat), and his observations on political matters are frank and detailed. Although some people might not like it, he lived long enough to make pungent remarks about two prominent North American conservatives of the 1980s: Ronald Reagan and Brian Mulroney. It’s not difficult to imagine what he might have said about George Bush and Stephen Harper.

I am comfortable, therefore, to post critiques of the political right in the liberal spirit Frye embodied, and I am always on the lookout for passages from the collected works consistent with the opinions expressed here. This is particularly true regarding the behavior of an increasingly aggressive economic elite that for the past thirty years has begrudged the poor the assistance they require while stripping the middle class of a fair share of the wealth they generate. In the 1940s, Frye readily characterized such trends as the emergence of a North American brand of fascism. There isn’t any good reason we should hesitate to do so now. It is a direct threat to democracy, which Frye seemed to think of as a secular form of salvation. It is also a nullification of the primary concerns he regarded as the full expression of both corporeal and spiritual life. If there’s any lingering doubt about this, below is another quote to add to the collection already compiled here over the last few months, this time from “Trends in Modern Culture.” As always, Frye sets the standard for feet-on-the-ground idealism: the recognition of and the working toward the better world we could create if only we had the courage to push this one aside.

As the conception of democracy has matured, it has separated itself from its vague background of Utopian optimism.  Many Americans still believe that laissez-faire is the economic aspect of democracy, but there is a growing realization that laissez-faire by itself does not lead to democracy, but to oligarchy, and thence to managerial dictatorship. Laissez-faire by itself is antidemocratic: all progress in the conditions of the working classes has been wrung from it in a kind of cold civil war. . . . (CW 11, 251)

Quote of the Day: “Fools should have full liberty to speak”


Glenn Beck yesterday — and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

Frye in one of the late notebooks:

What is important about free speech in a democracy is not only that everyone has the right to express an opinion, however ill considered, but that fools should have full liberty to speak so that they can be recognized as fools.  (CW 3, 410)

“Full mooner” is the term emerging from the mainstream punditocracy to describe the increasingly unhinged Glenn Beck, whose rants are more and more like watching Plan 9 from Outer Space; jaw-droppingly awful but also inadvertantly hilarious.  It’s got to be the most licit approximation there is to being high on shrooms.

The Vicar of Bray and The Analogy of Democracy


I am not sure this helps clarify Frye’s enigmatic statement about the Vicar of Bray not becoming a bishop, but Craig Walker’s post led me to a piece entitled “The Analogy of Democracy” (1952).  There Frye argues that

 democracy is to be judged not by what it does, but by what it aims at in spite of what it does. The supremacy of civil over military power, the full publication of all acts of government, the toleration of unpopular opinion, are all recognized to be unchangeable principles of democracy even when they are flouted as often as exemplified. Further, any feature of democracy that is nothing more than a safeguard designed to prevent a democratic process from congealing at a certain stage in its development may disappear when democracy passes that stage. We may find that even such apparently essential things as a two-party system of parliamentary government may so disappear. On the other hand, the fact that democracy is not in itself a form of government makes it possible for it to adapt itself to a wide variety of such forms. If the United States decided to adopt a Soviet system or, as in Bernard Shaw’s The Apple Cart, to recognize George VI as their king, the move might be inadvisable, but it would not be in itself a threat to democracy.

[Pages 219-20 in Northrop Frye, Reading the World, Selected Writings, ed. Robert D. Denham, 1935-76, New York: Peter Lang, 1990; the essay was originally published in Bias 1 (Feb. 1952): 2-6.]

In the same essay Frye observes that

the ultimate aim of democracy is to reach what is not only natural society, but a secular analogy of Christianity. The church is a community whose members are made free and equal by their faith. It is ordered by its Master to take society as it finds it, to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This, of course, excludes the worship of Caesar as a divine being, which is one of the things that the Caesars of this world are most interested in, and Caesar finds other difficulties in trying to digest this free and equal community in his pyramidial state. To the extent that it obeys the command not to resist evil, the Church’s social dialectic works toward compelling the whole social order to fall into a pattern analogous to its own. This triumph of the Church in manifesting its Master’s victory over the world is the real meaning of the democratic revolution today. (224-5)

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