Category Archives: Frye on Democracy

Frye on Elections in General

With the U.S. presidential elections coming up,  Frye’s comments on elections in general might help see the hoopla for what it is. One quotation is from a special lecture and the other is from an American interview with Bill Moyers. Enjoy.

It has been said that those who do not learn history are condemned to repeat it: this means very little, because we are all in the position of voters in a  Canadian [or American] election, condemned to repeat history anyway whether we learn it or not. But those who refuse to confront their own real past, in whatever form, are condemning themselves to die without having been born.

(Creation and Recreation: 1980)


MOYERS: Is television here influencing politics the way it is in the United States, making it a sporting event or entertainment?

FRYE: Very much so. I would like it better if I thought we had people who could play up to it. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter all that much who’s president of the United States. What did it matter in twentieth-century history that George [Gerald] Ford was a President of the United States?

MOYERS: Are you saying that the President is the front man for a system that continues to operate irrespective of his leadership?

FRYE: I’m not sure that the pyramid myth, the notion of the man at the top of society, really conforms to the realities of twentieth-century life. There is a whole machinery that is bound to continue functioning, so that ninety-five percent of what any President can do is already prescribed for him – unless he’s a complete lunatic. For that reason, it doesn’t seem so profoundly significant who is in the position of leadership.

MOYERS: What does that say about the role of the leader in the modern world?

FRYE: It means that the leader has to be a teammate. The charismatic leader, to the extent that he is that, is a rather dangerous person if he starts taking himself seriously. I’m a little leery about the adulation bestowed on Gorbachev. He has a very complex piece of machinery to try to help operate. The historical process works itself out in ways that really don’t allow for the emergence of a specific leader. It’s only in the army that you have the specific leader because that’s the way the military hierarchy’s set up.

MOYERS: But historical processes are the accumulated actions of autonomous individuals expressing their wills, appetites, desires, passions in the world out there. Those are subject to being changed by leaders, are they not?

FRYE: People are much more pushed around than that by the cultural conditioning in which they’re brought up and the social conditions under which they have to operate. The person who emerges as leader is really the person who is the ultimate product of that social conditioning.

MOYERS: There was an Italian Marxist in the 1920s who said that in the future all leaders will be corporate. There will not be single leaders. Of course that was before Mussolini and before Hitler.

FRYE: He was right to the extent that the charismatic single leader turned out to be a disaster.

MOYERS: So maybe the corporate Leader is not only an historical necessity, but a desirable phenomenon as well.

FRYE: He’s desirable because I think he’s essential for movement in the direction of peace. When I said that it was only the military that gives you the person on top, the supreme command, you notice that the dictators, the supreme leaders, have always been leaders of an army and have always imposed what is essentially martial law on their communities.

(Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas, 1989)


This Time for Sure

Three stages: first, we belong before we are, & few of us find any clarification of our social context. Second, an antithesis develops in which the individual with his wants, collides with what society will let him do. Third, a state in which the individual is not diminished in dignity with his social contract. This is the state of ideal democracy, where primary concerns are primary, and therefore social concerns are subordinated in individual experience. (Notebook 44, CW 5, 177)

We really are back this time. My apologies once again for what unexpectedly turned out to be a long hiatus. The school I teach at is moving very quickly toward 50% online delivery, which is scheduled to be fully in place next year. There is therefore much to do to prepare and to adjust to such a radical change. Once the new semester got under way last month, the reality of what this would involve became apparent, and the demands of it have kept me preoccupied. This, for me at least, is a good time to begin a new thread on Frye and education, which we’ll run along with our ongoing Frye on democracy thread.

Speaking of that thread, the trends in current events we’ve been following closely for months continue to be relevant. The increasing nastiness and nihilism on the political right in the U.S. has produced the most buffoonish and dangerously reckless field of Republican presidential candidates imaginable — at least until the next round of elections. The case against them no longer needs to be made. The fact that Newt Gingrich remains a significant figure in the race, or that Mitt Romney has just accepted an endorsement from Donald Trump, or that Rick Santorum has any significant constituency at all and may even win the Minnesota primary, says all that needs to be said.  It used to be that the Republican primaries only had one Lyndon LaRouche in the field. Now they are all Lyndon LaRouche; political extremists trafficking in lies, delusion, and paranoid resentment, whose rhetoric daily becomes more and more ominous with regard to those who do not share their worldview.

Occupy Wall Street continues to represent the most consistent insurgent response to the deepening insanity on the right. People used to mock the Occupy movement for having no message. We don’t hear that anymore because it is demonstrably not true. The Occupy movement has completely changed the political narrative in at least one crucial respect: the single issue that has moved to the forefront and seems poised to dominate all others in the upcoming presidential election campaign is economic injustice, which is now so rampant that it is impossible to ignore. The clapped out conservative narrative that has been running at the mouth since Ronald Reagan’s presidency seems to have been reduced to incoherent babble that no one outside of the asylum really listens to anymore. Meanwhile, Occupiers themselves continue to be subjected to escalating police violence, most recently in Oakland and Washington. I suspect it will not be enough to prevent a massive resurgence of the movement in the spring when the weather improves and as the election season gets fully underway.

Finally, the Keystone XL pipeline remains the only issue with any urgent priority on the Conservative government’s agenda, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention to who Stephen Harper is and what he represents. Harper — an evangelical Christian convert belonging to a church with deep roots in End Times and Rapture theology — seems to manifest a more profound nihilism than even the Republicans, and that’s saying something. Bringing the toxic tar sands up to full production, as Harper is absolutely determined to do, represents what can now only be called a runaway death wish. This seems to be a pronounced trend on the Christian far right: because they will be delivered into the arms of their Caucasian and high-thread-count-be-robed Jesus sometime soon, it doesn’t matter what they do to the environment or to the rest of us. We’re doomed anyway, and this world is going to be drenched in blood and consumed by fire, so what does catastrophic global warming really matter?  The Harper government, which received only 39% of the popular vote in the last election, has decided to commit the nation as a whole to a form of state-sponsored eco-terrorism more deadly and more immediately dangerous than any other form of terrorism currently at work anywhere in the world. That makes this a good time to begin yet another thread: Frye on Canada. The current Conservative government is a grotesque anomaly in our political history, being so openly disdainful of the wishes of the electorate as well as indifferent to our longstanding social contract. We need some perspective on that.

So let’s pick up where we left off. As always, we will bring the formidable work of Frye to bear on all issues that arise as we go.

(Photo: E.J. Pratt Library)

Frye on Democracy 7

From “The Critical Discipline”:

[T]he democracies seem to be forgetting their revolutionary traditions, and their will to face the future seems to be sapped by a morbid fear of losing what they now have. But both religion and democracy teach us that ordinary society is highly expendable. Christianity insists that man’s ordinary actions are worth very little in the sight of God. Democracy was not founded on a maudlin enthusiasm for the common man, but on inference from original sin: that men are not fit to be trusted with too much power. Our students have been conditioned to regard such doctrines as depressing, although they were part of the vision of life that inspired Milton and Lincoln. Without the sense of expanding possibilities that such a vision brings, it is hard to see how the democracies can mentally adapt even to the social changes that will be forced on them, much less develop the creative energy to make their own. (CW 7, 114-15)

Frye on Democracy 6

Here’s a quote on democracy as anarchism, which, unfortunately is not cross-referenced in the index, so it has not, up until now, been included in our earlier compilation, Frye on anarchism. To discover it now, however, is like unearthing treasure.

Democracy is anarchistic in the sense that it is an attempt to destroy the state by replacing it with an expanding federation of communities, a federation which reaches its limit only in a worldwide federation. (“The Analogy of Democracy,” CW 4, 271)

Frye on Democracy 5

From “The Analogy of Democracy”:

One difficulty about defining the word “democracy” is that it is not the name of a specific form of government, like republic or monarchy. It represents, rather, an informing idea, a process, which, because it has developed out of the past, is traditional, and, because it is moving toward a future goal, revolutionary. . . Thus democracy is to be judged, not by what it does, but 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. (CW 4, 27)

Frye on Democracy 4

Frye’s observations below regarding the inimical effects of religious fundamentalism upon democracy are currently being demonstrated by the transformation of the Republican Party into a doomsday cult. Canada has nothing to compare to it yet, but Stephen Harper’s furtive intrusion of his own sheep-and-goats fundamentalist belief into the political and legislative agenda is an indication that it can happen here.

In the course of time the movement begun by the Reformation did achieve one major victory: the gradual spread throughout the Western world of the principle of separation of church and state. Something of the genuine secular benefits of democracy have rubbed off on the religious groups, to the immense benefit of humanity, and depriving religion of all secular or temporal power is one of the most genuinely emancipating movements of our time. It seems to be a general rule that the more “orthodox” or “fundamentalist” a religious attitude is, the more strongly it resents this separation and the more consistently it lobbies for legislation giving its formulas secular authority. Today, in Israel and in much of the Muslim and Hindu world. . .we can clearly see that these religious attitudes are the worst possible basis for a secular society. (CW 4, 174-5)

Frye on Democracy 3

Here’s an editorial, “Law and Disorder,” published in Canadian Forum, July 1949. This was a time when the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union began to get fully underway with a “Red Scare” that would soon bring Joseph McCarthy to the fore as the chief demagogic fomenter of national paranoia and the compromised rule of law that comes with it. To appreciate this editorial’s continuing relevance today, substitute the war on Communism with the war on terror. 

The present Communist witch-hunt in the United States has rather paralyzed liberal criticism, because of the complexity of factors and uneven distribution of sympathies involved. On the one hand, the democratic tradition gives the widest possible freedom of action in politics; on the other hand, the American people feel that in the present state of affairs Communists are for all practical purposes agents of Russia and active enemy aliens. Thus Communism is legal, but discouraged by intimidation; it cannot be prosecuted so it has to be persecuted. Unlike the witch-hunt of 1919 the present moves against Communism have a good deal of popular support, as Russia has thrown away all the vast good will which, a few years ago, she could have had for the asking from the American public. Liberals and intellectuals who find in Communism the enemy of everything they stand for hardly know what to say, as they disapprove of the means employed while recognizing a certain amount of of sense in the anti-Communist drive.

The trouble is that there is no substitute for a reign of law except a reign of terror. If steps are taken against Communism outside the regular legal channels, they cannot help being violent and arbitrary. Without a legal definition of Communism, which would protect the Communist as well as the non-Communist, there is nothing to stop some people from calling anyone a Communist whom they regard as sufficiently dangerous. Without definite legal procedures, there is nothing to stop the anti-Communist drive from being led by people with lynching mentalities, who regard the processes of law as too cumbersome and slippery to work properly in an emergency situation. Whatever good the Dies and Thomas committee hearing may have done, the evil of intimidation, character assassination, forcible suppression of evidence, and the spreading of terrorized insecurity among government employees far outweighs it. To try to outlaw something by outlawed means in the name of the law is a hopeless paradox, and every step in contempt of law taken by a democracy brings it so much nearer to the processes of police espionage, torture, and secret arrest which democrats hate so much in the totalitarian countries.

There are great and perilous difficulties involved in declaring the Communist party illegal, but at least such a procedure would put all suspected people to some extent under the democratic guarantee of personal security and presumption of innocence prior to legally proved guilt. The law may be imperfect, and even more imperfectly administered, but still it does possess our inherited liberties. As it is, the real Communists are far less vulnerable than their innocent bystanders to the reckless mud-slinging, private feuds, and official spreading of slander which have resulted from the Thomas hearings. (CW 11, 224-5)

Frye on Democracy 2

It’s been observed here many times by different people that Frye possessed remarkable powers of prophecy: observations on society and politics made sixty years ago or more remain relevant to the current social scene, often to a startling degree. A case in point is the quote below. It requires no elaboration.

The defenses of laissez-faire offered today usually assume that the political form of it is democracy. This is nonsense: its political form is an oligarchic dictatorship. Every amelioration of labour conditions, every limitation of power of monopolies, every effort to make the oligarchy responsible to the community as a whole, has been forced out of laissez-faire by democracy, which has played a consistently revolutionary role against it.  (“The Church: Its Relation to Society,” CW 4, 266)

Frye on Democracy 1

Our coverage of recent events invites a consideration of Frye’s observations on democracy. Not surprisingly, he has much to say: putting together a compilation involves 23 of the 29 volumes of the Collected Works, so it will take a while. Until it is completed, however, we’ll put up a quote a day. Our first is his editorial, “The Idea of Democracy,” published on February 7, 1950, in The Varsity.

All governments whatever must be either the expression of the will of 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 of government is the democratic one.

Democracy is thus essentially the attempt to preserve law and order in society which has superseded the primitive and outmoded idea of “rule.” A monarchy may be democratic, as in Great Britain, but only if the king is conceived of reigning rather than ruling. But the cardinal democratic principle of limiting autonomous power applies to the majority as well. Unanimity being unobtainable in human society, the deciding force of democratic political action is normally the will of the majority; but democracy is very far from being merely an expression of the will of the people. The unconditioned will even of a majority could bring about as great a tyranny as the unconditioned will of a single ruler. The energy and dynamic of a democracy derive from majority rule; its balancing and preserving principle is minority right.

In other words, the expression of popular will will bring freedom only insofar as it is an informed will directed toward a desirable end. The conception of what the desirable end is must be built up from a conflicting body of minority opinions. A democracy must, therefore, adopt the principle of toleration toward a variety in opinion and an inductive and empiric attitude to opinion in general. All kinds of religious views, of political programs, of scientific and philosophical conceptions, must be given free play. The limiting principle of such tolerations is that all opinions should be as far as possible be publicized, that is, submitted to the people as a whole. The publicizing of various opinions is democratic education in the broadest sense, the informing of the popular will by the individuals or minorities who have something to contribute to it. To use Toynbee’s language for a different purpose, in a democracy all minorities must be creative minorities, never dominant ones.

Antidemocratic 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 a democracy to tolerate a conspiratorial coup d’etat aimed at the restoration of the old idea of a professional ruling class.

Democracy being a political theory only, it needs an economic structure to complete itself. Originally, this economic structure was laissez-faire capitalism, which aided the growth of democracy by playing a revolutionary role against the old hereditary concentrations of power and privilege which had come down from feudal times. By now laissez-faire is in considerable danger of developing into an oligarchic dictatorship or managerial system, and revolutionary democratic action now takes the form of using the democratic machinery of government, the Parliament, the civil service, and the cabinet, to control the productive industrial economy to the point of making its actions known to the people as whole and responsible to them. Along with this has grown what is coming to be known as the “welfare state,” the attempt to integrate the economy of society more closely with its government.

Democracy is thus compelled at present to wage war on two fronts, against the dangers of a revolutionary coup d’etat coming from either end of the economic structure. These two threats are generally known as Facism and Communism respectively, and both have as their aim the total control of government by a small ruling class within the economic structure. Both, therefore, aim at managerial dictatorships, and both claim to be fighting, not democracy, but one another. Both claim that democracy is merely the facade of its real enemy. The problem of democracy at present is to oppose both threats to its existence without being frightened by either into becoming the cat’s paw of the other. (CW 11, 235-6)