October, 2016
October 9, 2016
Democratic Fanaticism in Action

When I wrote about the deeply ingrained power of “democratic romanticism” in my last post, I didn’t provide any particular example of this phenomenon. As luck has it, I’ve now been made aware of a review of Brennan’s book in Jacobin which perfectly illustrates the irrational guises in which democratic romanticism—or alternatively, democratic fanaticism—appears, even (especially?) amongst intellectual elites.

As it happens, I’ve just come back from teaching an introductory course on the methods of philosophy at the University of Bayreuth. I used one of Brennan’s earlier articles (“The Right to a Competent Electorate”) as a text for one session of the seminar. I used the text specifically because I predicted, from previous teaching, that students would have strong emotive and political reactions to Brennan’s text—most of them would find the idea that some people should not be allowed to vote appalling, or at least counterintuitive.

I separated students into groups, and asked them to work out whether (and if so, how) they thought Brennan’s argument was flawed; and then to develop Brennan’s strongest possible reply to whatever they had come up with. Despite the obvious aims—learning how to read and understand a text, and to pay attention to how a good author like Brennan anticipates lots of potential objections—there was also an implicit learning objective: to realize that philosophy requires a willingness to expose even your most-cherished moral and political commitments to withering criticism, and an ability to consider and imagine the strongest possible objections to them.

I think my students did well—there wasn’t an atmosphere of lazy rejection in our discussion, but a sense that refuting Brennan (if you wished to refute him) would require hard and serious intellectual labour. Jacobin, I take it, is meant to be an intellectual magazine. So we would expect that they also approach a philosophical argument as, well, an argument—that is, as a set of reasoned steps to a conclusion—as far as this is possible within the constraints of a popular magazine. Jonah Walters’ review, on the other hand, doesn’t even get to the stage of not engaging with Brennan—his piece is just the intellectual version of a hit piece in the Sun (“dirty libertarian shows his true fascist face in recent book—and his argument isn’t even new!”).

Indeed, what is most frustrating about articles like Walters’ is that they are meant to have, and imitate, intellectual substance. This does much unnoticed damage: it might deceive some sophomoric readers into thinking that something is going on here which is worth emulating, while the best sociological explanation of a review like this is simply that the author (or the magazine) feels a need to establish their ideological commitment to democratic fanaticism through loud invective of any view which questions it. Nothing of intellectual interest happens here—to see this is itself a useful lesson to teach. I’m slightly frustrated that I hadn’t come across this article earlier—it would have been great to use for my students as a particularly disastrous example of how not to engage with philosophy.