So Let It Be Unwritten

“Social Justice Activism is a waste of time that accomplishes nothing.” Sure about that?

Baby steps, to be sure–but still forward motion in the right direction. And not the last of them.

In civil society, most of my fellow citizens are my civic friends, part of a great cooperative scheme. One of the repugnant features of democracy is that it transforms these people into threats to my well-being. My fellow citizens exercise power over me in risky and incompetent ways. This makes them my civic enemies. (Jason Brennan, Against Democracy, p. 245).

One of the best features of democracy is that unlike most other political systems, it gives you the freedom to resist those who would trample on your rights by demanding a modicum of accountability in those who would do the trampling (or send the tramplers). It doesn’t just transform hitherto peaceful people into enemies; it gives you the resources non-violently to confront those who come to the civic scene determined to be your enemies. Democracy didn’t create Zionist apartheid, or the will to domination that it represents. Zionism did. Democracy gives those dominated by it the only peaceful means of resistance at their disposal.

As long as some wield power over others, they’ll do so in risky and incompetent ways. As long as that happens, the rest of us need a realistic and ethically defensible means of resistance–the means we’re to employ beforeall else fails.” That may not be Jason Brennan’s conception of democracy (cf. Against Democracy, pp. 9-10, 77-78), but if not, that’s his problem. The problem the rest of us face is how to avoid being swallowed alive by the threats we face. As far as I can see, the two options at our disposal are democratic activism or terrorism. I’m not above resorting to the latter “when all else fails,” but I’d advise sticking to the former when there’s some hope of success. As there sometimes is.

22 thoughts on “So Let It Be Unwritten

  1. I like democracy more than Jason Brennan does, and for just the sort of reason you note here. But I also dislike democracy more than you do, for some of the reasons Brennan gives (among others).

    Happily, I don’t think democracy and terrorism are the only two modes of social-justice activism available to us:

    See Charles J. here:

    and me (plus more Charles) here:


    • There are things I dislike about democracy, too. My point is less that I like democracy than that I object to broad-brush criticisms of engagement in democratic activism, or political activism generally. In making that point, I hadn’t meant to be contrasting democratic activism with agorism, as if to argue for the superiority of the former over the latter. I was arguing against people like Brennan who seem to take great pleasure in deriding activism, aiming primarily at democratic activism. But they’re also happy to deride activism that doesn’t qualify as democratic by their definitions, whether or not it qualifies as agorist.

      Consider, for instance, the Brennan-Magness view on adjunct justice. If you read their published work, you get the impression that they simply want to be the adults in the room giving us the reality check on how much adjunct justice will cost. But if you read BHL, it becomes clear that they deride the very idea of activism on behalf of adjunct justice, ignoring even the reforms that would cost nothing. (I remain blacklisted at BHL, by the way–the one form of activism Brennan et al seem to favor.) In her book The War on Cops, Heather Mac Donald goes so far as to equate legal, non-violent protest with the terroristic threats that might precede an assassination (p. 40). A common theme of anti-activist polemics is the idea that activism is an exercise in futility, which is what explains its “virulence”: protesters are resentment-filled zombies frustrated at the quixotic nature of the activist enterprise; that’s why they’re incipient rioters, murderers, or Brennanite “hooligans”. That view was my target, not agorism. And my aim wasn’t so much to defend democracy per se as to defend the value of democratic activism.

      But your comment touches on a deeper issue. One likely reason why my view contrasts with Brennan’s and partly contrasts with yours is that I think I’m operating with a different conception of “democracy” than either of you. In Against Democracy, Brennan stipulatively defines democracy in terms of the exercise of “political liberties,” and confines political liberties to “the right to vote” (pp. 10-11). In The Ethics of Voting, he stipulatively narrows the focus of his discussion of the ethics of voting to “voting in political contexts” (p. 1). He doesn’t define “political context,” but he seems to mean: contexts involving state-run elections for candidates for government office, and only those. (Very little of his discussion in either book applies to referenda.)

      The result, in my view, is an overly narrow (and entirely stipulative) conception of both democracy and the ethics of voting. Brennan cheerfully admits that his definitions are stipulative, telling us that nothing turns on his use of these stipulations. But when he goes into polemical mode, whether in the books or elsewhere, he seems to forget that his arguments all involved stipulated terminology. His argument against democracy is an argument against it on a narrow understanding. But when he wants to argue that “political participation corrupts,” his polemics are polemics against democratic politics in the broad, not the narrow sense. “Politics Doesn’t Empower You or Me” is not a chapter about voting, or about democracy narrowly understood, but about politics.

      Put somewhat differently, if his anti-politics polemics were really aiming at democratic politics in the narrow, stipulated sense, they would invite the objection of having committed an ignoratio elenchi: democratic politics in the narrow, stipulated sense is not how most people conceive of democratic politics, a fact Brennan himself admits (p 10). So an attack on democratic politics in the narrow sense doesn’t work against democratic politics in the broader sense. He writes as though this issue had simply never occurred to him. The careful reader is then left wondering what exactly he’s trying to say. The careless reader reads it as saying what it says at face value: politics is quixotic, corrupting bullshit.

      So now let me now address what you’re saying. Suppose we understand “democratic activism” in the broadest sense. If so, there is no conflict between advocacy of or engagement in democratic activism and advocacy of or engagement in agorism. Agorism is either a kind of democratic activism, or else democratic activism is a necessary accompaniment of agorism, at least as long as we live in (or under) states. As I see it, agorism is so reliant on democratic activism that even if the two things are conceptually distinct (which I’ll grant), there is no practical way to engage in the one without engaging in the other. So perhaps I was speaking too loosely when I said that either we engage in democratic activism or we engage in terrorism. More precisely put, what I mean is: either we engage in democratic activism in a broad sense which includes agorism, or we engage in terrorism.

      I think of “democratic” primarily as an adjective, not a noun, i.e., as modifying actions or processes rather than naming a certain kind of political regime. Briefly put: take any common good collectively pursued. The good can either be realized by inviting the active participation of all or many of those realizing the good, or not. The more that the pursuit of a common good involves the active participation of those involved, the more democratic it is. The less it does so, the less democratic it is. So political regimes or systems can be more or less democratic without its being the case that any regime literally is “a democracy.” Historically, I doubt there are any democracies, i.e., regimes that count as democratic across the board. Athens excluded too many residents from political participation to count as “a democracy.” The U.S. is a political democracy, but is committed to a hierarchical, non-democratic conception of corporate life in the economic sphere, hence isn’t one all things considered. And so on. That said, since participation is an important value, but not the essential feature of a legitimate government (=the protection of rights), it would make no sense singlemindedly trying to bring about “a democracy,” as opposed to making a regime otherwise characterized more democratic (or less so) than it currently is while pursuing other, more essential goals (=the protection of rights).

      On my view, “democratic activism” is neither confined to electoral politics nor confined to activism vis-a-vis the government. As I see it, public interest litigation for constitutional rights (a la the ACLU, or Institute for Justice) is a form of democratic activism despite not being an instance of electoral politics. So is demanding a trial when you’re not guilty, rather than plea bargaining (again, not an instance of electoral politics). So is pressing for workplace democracy within a privately owned firm, even though that has nothing to do with the state. Private religious ritual is not democratic activism, but the internal governance structure of a church, synagogue, or mosque can be democratic or non-democratic. The Presbyterian Church is democratic; the Catholic Church mostly isn’t. Reconstructionist Judaism is, ultra-Orthodox Judaism is not. So Presbyterians and Reconstructionist Jews can engage in democratic activism within and about their churches/synagogues (considered as institutions). Catholics and ultra-Orthodox Jews can try, but in a sense that amounts to actio libera in causa rather than actio libera in execution (whatever the Latin for that is). Last example: an HOA can be more or less democratic, and the principles of an “ethics of voting” should apply to the voting that takes place in one just as it applies to voting in, say, municipal, state, or federal elections. It would take too long to assemble a comprehensive list of what counts and what doesn’t, but that’s the best I can do for now.

      This is not exactly agorism a la Konkin, but I think it narrows the gap between democratic activism as I conceive of it and agorism as you do in a way that is conceptually impossible if one accepts Brennan’s conception of “democratic activism.” I’m hedging on exactly what to say about agorism because I don’t know enough about it to be more precise than that. I read your C4SS piece (with the quotations from Johnson) when it came out, and found myself basically agreeing with you against Gillespie and Mangu-Ward. But I don’t see their view as relevant to mine. I haven’t yet read the Johnson paper, but the quotations from your C4SS article suggest that he’s operating with a narrower conception of democratic activism than I am. He writes as though democratic activism were primarily a matter of voting in large-scale elections. But the example from my post was a case of directly lobbying a town council of seven members, and inducing the council to rescind a proclamation passed by those seven members. Johnson writes as though democratic activism=party politics, and party politics=voting in a primary or general election. But if you join a party and become a part of its machinery, you have more influence and options than that. Granted, the work you do will inevitably be gradual and incremental. But that’s true of all reform.

      One last thing, to clarify why I see democratic activism and agorism as so closely linked. Take just one of Johnson’s examples:

      the success that illegal immigrants, state-side family members, coyotes, good samaritan ranchers, off-the-books employers, et al. have had in getting people across the border in defiance of immigration law, while avoiding or minimizing government interference

      I’m all on board, and take his point. But “avoiding or minimizing government interference” is not the same thing as not encountering any. Once you engage in such actions, you invite government interference. Once “invited,” government tends to show up. And once it shows up, it has to be resisted. As long as a state exists, and recognizes no strong limitations on its powers (or misconceives them), it will always show up “invited” (meaning uninvited) at every party. So agorists need a fall back strategy for that eventuality–i.e., either democratic activism in my sense, or terrorism. And as I said, the former is the preferred strategy.

      So I would insist that even if we can conceptually distinguish agorism and democratic activism, democratic activism either has to be a part of agorism or has to “accompany” it as a kind of bodyguard–like this or this.

      Apologies for the length. I’m supposed to be grading, but this was a welcome reprieve. Of course, anything would be.


      • I’m broadly in agreement with most or all of what you say above. And I find “democracy” and “democratic” are words that I find myself using in more than one sense in different contexts (same for “libertarian” — sometimes I use it broadly so that folks like Hayek count, sometimes I use it more narrowly so that they don’t).

        The same is true of “politics,” which I sometimes use narrowly in the same sense that Karl Hess called for “The Death of Politics,” — — and sometimes more broadly, as when I parse Aristotle’s notion of human beings as “political animals” as saying that it’s “an essential component of a truly human life to deal with others politically, i.e., through reason and discourse — i.e., as conversation partners [rather than through force]”:

        Don Lavoie defends the broader conceptions of both “politics” and “democracy” in his article “Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society”:

        For example, Lavoie says:

        “Wherever human beings engage in direct discourse with one another about their mutual rights and responsibilities, there is a politics. I mean politics in the sense of the public sphere in which discourse over rights and responsibilities is carried on, much in the way Hannah Arendt discusses it. …. The force of public opinion, like that of markets, is not best conceived as a concentrated will representing the public, but as the distributed influence of political discourses throughout society. … Inside the firm, in business lunches, at street corners, interpersonal discourses are constantly going on in markets. In all those places there is a politics going on, a politics that can be more or less democratic.”

        Do you have that article? The link above goes to a paywall, but if you want a free copy I can hook you up, man:

        Charles and I also talk a bit about Lavoie’s position here:


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  3. Not much to add, but it strikes me that for all that the exchange above illustrates the need to disambiguate ‘democratic’ and ‘politics,’ it might also help to disambiguate ‘activism.’ It seems to me that a lot of things go by the name of ‘activism,’ and that we might have very different assessments of some of them than of others. Your example involved a more or less organized effort by people who were not (or mostly not) public officials to get a proclamation rescinded. Granting that the proclamation was awful, the activism in this case got something done. It sure as hell wasn’t a waste of time. But much that goes by the name ‘democratic activism’ or ‘social justice activism’ seems pretty different, and more dubiously effective, worthwhile, or commendable (e.g., some of the student protests at Dartmouth in and around my time there, as I’ve mentioned in the past).

    I don’t think this point conflicts with anything you say here. It’s just a reminder that, absent some (perhaps inevitably stipulative) refinement of concepts like ‘democratic activism’ or ‘social justice activism,’ statements like “social justice activism is a waste of time that accomplishes nothing” are almost guaranteed to be false, but also almost guaranteed to have a pretty solid grain of truth in them.

    Incidentally, as a Hellenist I find it almost intolerably paradoxical to say that Athens was not a democracy; they coined the term, and democratic Athens ought to be a paradigm case of democracy if we’re going to use that term in anything other than arbitrarily stipulated ways — which is not to deny the point that it was less democratic than it could have been given its widespread exclusion of most of its population. But when I take off my scholarly blinders, it’s not at all difficult to see that insisting on that sort of usage is (almost) as arbitrarily stipulative as anything else on offer. The lesson I take from this is that debates about the essence of democracy are empty; instead of arguing about what we should mean by ‘democracy,’ we ought to worry instead about assessing the various things that people mean by ‘democracy.’ But this, too, I take to be consistent with what you’ve said here.

    In any case, hooray for successful democratic-activism-or-whatever-we-want-to-call-it!


    • “for all that the exchange above illustrates the need to disambiguate ‘democratic’ and ‘politics,’ it might also help to disambiguate ‘activism.’”

      It depends what you mean by “disambiguate.” 😛

      “as a Hellenist I find it almost intolerably paradoxical to say that Athens was not a democracy; they coined the term, and democratic Athens ought to be a paradigm case of democracy”

      One could say there’s a mismatch between the sense and the reference. That’s how Alcibiades was able to undermine Pericles’ democratic position in Xenophon.

      Of course in such cases Aristotle seems to think, in rather proto-Kripkean fashion, that sense does not determine reference. His argument that one can have a majoritarian oligarchy is essentially “those things in the world that you’ve picked out and baptised with the name ‘oligarchy’? I know you did that because you thought their essential unifying characteristic was rule by the few; but in fact their essential unifying characteristic is rule by the wealthy, so that’s how we should use the term.”


      • I’m not supposing (at least I don’t think I am) that sense determines reference in this case. The take-Athens-as-paradigmatic-of-democracy line of thought runs the other way around: the word was coined (or at least came into currency) to refer to the Athenian system, and so should be understood relative to that system and others that resemble it. That allows for the possibility of Athens being very imperfectly democratic, it just doesn’t allow for it not to have been democratic at all. The Athens-was-not-really-a-democracy move, by contrast, says “‘well, here’s the sense I’m giving ‘democracy’ — or the sense that ‘democracy’ has come to have — and Athens doesn’t meet that description, so it wasn’t really a democracy.” I don’t think the latter approach is wrong and the first is right, but I do think that treating the latter approach as the right one to the exclusion of the other would be odd given that the origin of the term lies in democratic Athens. The issue here differs from Aristotle’s disagreement with his interlocutors about oligarchy, because they were all using the term with at least widely overlapping reference, if not the same reference, and disagreeing about what the essential unifying characteristics were. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, and that’s one reason why I’m inclined to think the disagreement is more verbal than real.

        If the idea that there’s a mismatch between sense and reference in the Athenian case is meant to suggest that the Athenians themselves used the term ‘democracy’ in a sense that didn’t match the character of the system they were using it to describe, then that’s a substantive historical thesis. I suppose supporters and opponents of that sort of thesis could at least agree that it was possible for informed and reflective Greeks of the time to disagree about it, too.

        The broader point is that ‘democracy’ is not now a term with sufficiently stable or uncontested sense or reference to allow for clear communication, let alone substantive insights, in the absence of some, perhaps largely arbitrary, stipulation as to how it will be used. ‘Agorism’ has the advantage that hardly anybody has ever heard of it, so you guys largely get to say what it is.


        • One reason I think there was a sense/reference mismatch in the Greek use of “democracy” is the kinds of criticisms that its opponents are able to offer. So in Xenophon’s Pericles/Alcibiades dialogue in _Recollections_, Xenophon essentially has Alcibiades say: “you democrats defend democracy as the alternative to despotism; but under democracy as you practice it, the majority can behave despotically toward the minority.” I see that as a way of saying: real-life democracy doesn’t live up to what the idea of democracy is supposed to imply.

          Another example (sort of the reverse in a way, but with a similar moral): both Plato in _The Republic_ (book 8) and pseudo-Xenophon (the “Old Oligarch) in “Constitution of the Athenians” complain that in democracies like Athens, there is too much equality between slave and free; and Plato adds that there’s also too much equality between old and young, between citizens and metics, and (ironically enough, given his own proposals) between women and men:

          “For instance, a father gets into the habit of behaving like a child and fearing his son, and the son gets into the habit of behaving like a father, feeling neither shame nor fear in front of his parents—all in order to be free. A resident alien feels himself equal to a citizen and a citizen to him,and a foreigner likewise. … The ultimate freedom for the majority, my friend, comes about in such a city, when males and females bought as slaves are no less free than those who bought them. Then there is the case of women in relation to men, and men to women, and the extent of their legal equality and freedom …”

          Of course as an actual description of Athenian democracy, these claims of freedom and equality being extended to women and to slaves are absurd. It’s reminiscent of the paranoid rants of conservatives today. And Plato may be a bit tongue-in-cheek about it, since he goes on to complain that domestic animals have more freedom and equality in democracies than elsewhere too (though I’m reminded of the odd case of dogs in Athens today: ). My point is that these critics of democracy seem to be seeing the extension of freedom and equality to women, slaves, etc. as just what you’d expect from people as insanely devoted to freedom and equality as those democrats; or that such an extension is democracy taken to its logical extreme.

          Thus the idea that democracies would be even more “democratic” if they a) recognised individual rights, and b) extended freedom and equality to women, slaves, etc. is one that was available contemporaneously; Xenophon’s argument is a precursor of (a), and Plato’s and pseudo-Xenophon’s complaints are a precursor of (b). That’s why I think there was an element in the sense of “democracy,” in tension with its reference, that these anti-democrats were picking up on, even if they were doing so oddly (since, e.g., Plato and pseudo-Xenophon redescribe the reference in an implausible way in order to make it consistent with those aspects of the sense).

          What I’m talking about is similar to the case of Xenophanes’ argument for monotheism which is essentially:

          1. A god has to be a supreme being.
          2. There cannot be more than one supreme being.
          3. Therefore, there cannot be more than one god.

          Commentators have puzzled over this argument, since in the ancient Greek context (1) seems question-begging; given that the Greeks recognised many gods and saw them as existing in a hierarchy, why would Xenophanes think he could help himself to (1)? But I think Xenophanes would answer: “yes, you claim to believe in a hierarchy of gods, with Zeus at the top; but the kind of reverence you give to any particular god when you pray to them shows that the notion of a god’s being a supreme being is implicit in the concept.” At any rate, the fact that he was able to claim (1) so confidently suggests there may at least have been a strand of (1) in the popular conception of “god,” even if it was intermixed with other strands.


          • I agree with all of that, more or less. It’s just that it doesn’t support the claim that Athens wasn’t a democracy. If anything, those points presuppose that it was, but insist that it was significantly less democratic than it could have been — where ‘democratic’ gets its meaning by referring to actual features of the existing regime (including its ideology). I’m not sure I want to concede that Xenophon’s Alcibiades hits the target if late 5th/early 4th century Athens is really his target. But even if he succeeds — perhaps especially if he succeeds — what he seems to show is that democracy is despotic, not that it isn’t really democracy.


            • Just to be pedantically explicit: My point about Israel is that Israel can’t be a democracy because it makes no sense to describe a country with a population of 8.7 million to be a democracy when it keeps 5.79 million under indefinite military occupation, debarring them from participation in self-governance and denying them basic rights. It’s democratic for its Jewish citizens, but not a democracy, all-in. Still, it’s more democratic than most of its neighbors (unless you count Turkey as one of its neighbors, in which case it’s not clear who wins the Democracy Derby).

              Even if India had a thoroughly, perfectly democratic political system (which it doesn’t, to put it mildly), the de facto power of patriarchy and the caste system in Indian society is incompatible with calling it a democracy. That said, it’s more democratic than China, Pakistan, or Afghanistan.

              Once you deny that the U.S., Israel, and India are democracies, Athens isn’t that hard to throw under the bus. A lot of other venerable things end up under that bus, and I’m more than happy to throw them there.

              My view may already sound revisionistically crazy, but there’s one more twist to it. Just as I don’t think “democracy” names a type of regime, I don’t think “totalitarianism” names one, either. Democracy is a feature of regimes, and totalitarian methods are a tactic indulged in by most regimes to some degree; it’s just that the ones we call “totalitarian” rely almost exclusively on them. But “totalitarian” regimes are on my account deviant perfectionist regimes. Perfectionist regimes exist to promote a certain ideal of human flourishing. Real perfectionist regimes do that to lesser or greater extent. (The best ones do it by adherence to liberal rights and democratic institutions. That doesn’t make them “democracies.” It makes them democratic perfectionist regimes.) Deviant perfectionist regimes are the perverted version of real perfectionist regimes. So I think of fascism and communism as deviant perfectionisms, where their “deviance” consists in heavy reliance on totalitarian methods as well as their perverse conceptions of human flourishing.

              I think it’s a mistake to define or conceive of political regimes primarily in terms of the methods they use. The reductio of this approach is Machiavelli’s taxonomy of principalities in The Prince (chapt. 1-2), which fixates entirely on how power is acquired and sustained, abstracting entirely from the aims of government. That’s why all that Machiavelli cares about is how to maintain states, not why they’re there in the first place. The tradition of defining states as “democracies” or “totalitarianisms” isn’t necessarily Machiavellian, but it makes the same mistake. This is one thing Rand gets right: she defines government not just as a force-monopolizer, full stop, but as a force-monopolizer whose force monopoly exists for the sake of enforcing rules that can only adequately be enforced by a force monopoly (a paraphrase, but that gets the gist). That’s the non-deviant case, and a rights-respecting government is the ideal. Then there are deviant cases, and less-than-ideal types of government, etc. But the types are differentiated by why they claim a monopoly of the kind characteristic of government, not what they do with it, or how it’s distributed. I don’t think she’s fully consistent about this in practice, but that’s what I take her to be saying.

              Of course, I’m probably the only person who ever took her to be saying that. Including her.

              I’m supposed to be on hiatus from the blog, and I’m supposed to be grading. But what am I actually doing? I’m talking about Israel, Machiavelli, and Ayn Rand. Does anyone beside me see anything wrong with this picture?


              • Well, your talking about Israel, Machiavelli, and Ayn Rand is obviously more interesting to you than is your grading. And it’s certainly more interesting to us than is your grading. So what could be wrong? 😛


                • A line from a final paper I just graded, asking whether the ethics course they took was worth the $3,129 they spent on it:

                  There was a portion of class where we watched porn. Most professors wouldn’t even say the word porn in class to their students. However, Khawaja playing porn allowed us to see different aspects of it.

                  Can Israel, Machiavelli, or Ayn Rand really compete with that?

                  Incidentally, I think you can see how easy it is to get arrested on the basis of student testimony about what goes on in one’s classroom.

                  I’m collecting these and will post them when I’m done grading. Trust me, Israel, Machiavelli, and Ayn Rand are a downright snooze compared with this stuff.

                  I have to go outside to grade the rest of these. To paraphrase Goethe on his death bed: “Mehr Licht! Mehr Licht!” Or do I mean Luft?


        • I guess I’m unmoved by the objection that Athens turns out not to be a democracy on my view, for the same reason that I’d be unmoved by a would-be objection to the effect that the U.S. turned out not to be, or for that matter, that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” (but turns out not to be on my view) or that “India is the largest democracy in the world” (but turns out not to be) or whatever. To put my point in a nutshell: I think my conception of “democracy” is intuitively clear and plausible, and don’t see much of a theoretical price to be paid for doubting that democracy has any paradigm instances whatsoever.

          Incidentally, I don’t necessarily intend “democratic” to have an honorific connotation, though in many contexts it deservedly does. Whether something is democratic is one question; whether it should be is another. I’m focusing on the first of the two questions here. And I’m going to sidestep the whole sense/reference issue.

          As I conceive of it, “democracy” is a feature of some group’s pursuit of a common good. People can pursue the common good in democratic or non-democratic ways. When they pursuit it democratically, they do so by inviting, or encouraging, or involving the participation of as many of the members of the group as possible or feasible, treating each of those members as having morally equal status. (I take participation to entail voluntary participation; as I think of it, “involuntary participation” is a solecism. You see how revisionary I can get.)

          So the democratic pursuit of a common good is active, voluntary participatory pursuit by free and equal moral agents. Pursuits are non-democratic when they de-emphasize or de-value active, voluntary participation by free and equal moral agents. I don’t claim that all common goods can or should be pursued in a democratic fashion. I simply claim that when people jointly pursue some good by going out of their way to get mass voluntary participation of moral equals considered as moral equals, they’re democratic. Whatever the implications of this conception of democracy for Athens, the U.S., Israel, India, or any other supposedly democratic regime, it strikes me as a perfectly plausible conception of what “democracy” means–and one that doesn’t pre-judge how we assess democracy. Maybe military life isn’t properly conceived as democratic. Then it shouldn’t. Maybe classrooms shouldn’t be democratic. Then they shouldn’t. Maybe marriages should be undemocratic. Then they should. My point is simply: the more that a military, a classroom, or a marriage is designed to elicit active participation by all parties involved (on behalf of the common good being pursued), the more democratic it is.

          Put this way, it’s a mistake to have thought that “democracy” was the name of a political regime or system in the first place. Democracy is a feature of regimes, not the name of a regime. By analogy: a regime is transparent when its activities are open to external audits and accountability. But there is no semantic need for a regime called a “transparency.” I don’t deny that maybe somewhere, sometime there was a regime dedicated to nothing but being transparent, so that its essential feature was just: transparency. And yes, I suppose that that regime would then qualify as a “transparency.” But that’s an outlying case. Being transparent is an important quality in an organization or government, but it’s too procedural to count as capturing its end. Its end explains why it should be transparent, not the other way around. It strikes me as a mistake to regard a relatively procedural feature, like transparency, as the essential defining feature of a political system.

          The same, I’d say (mutatis mutandis), is true of democracy. So the whole endeavor of classifying political regimes as “democracies” strikes me as misconceived from the outset. Even the most democratic regime is not going to be a democracy on my view, any more than the most transparent regime is going to be a transparency. It’s just a category mistake to conceive of political taxonomy in this way.

          But put that aside. Suppose that Athens coined the term “democracy.” Now I come up with a conception of “democracy” that entails that Athens wasn’t one. I don’t see the problem. The coiner of a term has no monopoly on all possible uses. Athens might have coined the term but failed to instantiate the phenomenon–as I think it did. I don’t think it’s all that controversial to say that democracy is incompatible with slaveocracy, patriarchy, a rigidly class-based economic system, tyranny, and imperialism. But Athens was as democratic as it was all those other things. Suppose we look at the resident population of Athens and ask: to what extent did Athens involve all or most of them in active participation as moral equals over its socio-political life? The answer is: it didn’t. It restricted active participation to adult free male citizens. So those men enjoyed a democracy (of sorts), but Athens didn’t. Athens isn’t: adult free male citizens. It’s the entire resident population of Athens.

          A similar point could be made of the U.S., Israel, or India. The U.S. political system is relatively democratic. But American firms and institutions are utterly non-democratic, even anti-democratic. Americans spend far more time in and with firms than they do with the political system. So I’m comfortable saying that the U.S. is not a democracy. It’s not even all that democratic. I think you can predict what I’d say about Israel or India.

          In any case, I would dispute the claim that democracy is an Athenian invention. On my view, you get democracy when people interact as moral equals in an actively participatory way for some common good. Suppose ex hypothesi that some village or tribe in Macedonia or Persia or Arabia or whatever governed itself by encouraging the active participation, as moral equals, of everyone (or a lot of people) in the tribe or village. Suppose they didn’t have slaves, or had fewer slaves (as a proportion of the whole population) than Athens. Suppose they were less patriarchal than Athens. Suppose they were less classist than Athens. Suppose they were less imperialist than Athens. (Etc.) Then this hypothetical village would have been more democratic than Athens.

          Given the nature of our historical evidence of the distant past, there is no way to exclude the possibility that this was indeed the case somewhere on the planet prior to and independently of Athens’s development of democracy. But if so, Athens didn’t invent democracy. Democracy could well pre-date Athens by a long shot. Did Athens coin “democracy”? Maybe. But we could only be confident of that if we knew what my would-be non-Athenian democrats called themselves. Again, our knowledge of ancient history is too impoverished for that. So my view is that we should tread lightly in making claims like “Athens coined ‘democracy’,” much less invented it.

          Of course, I don’t really know that any such village or tribe ever existed. So maybe it didn’t. But given our knowledge (or ignorance) of the distant past, I would say that our judgments of the past have to acknowledge the possibility. If so, the apparent price of holding my view goes down. I’d be willing to bite the bullet and adopt my conception of democracy, come what may for Athens. But if it’s not even clear that democracy really originates with Athens, there’s less of a bullet to bite.

          A similar issue arises when it comes to American history. There’s an old, venerable dispute about the supposed Iroquois origins of the U.S. Constitution, with one side insisting that the U.S. Constitution had its origins in the ancient Iroquois constitution, and another side deriding that. I think the dispute is better re-conceived in this way. Forget the influence of the Iroquois Constitution on the U.S. Constitution. It could be that Iroquois modes of governance were surprisingly democratic (however primitive they may have been, if they were). If so, Iroquois democracy preceded American democracy. Even if American democracy was more sophisticated than Iroquois democracy, and even if the U.S. Constitution lacked any Iroquois influence, it would be a mistake to insist that Americans invented eighteenth century North American democracy, or that Americans’ use of the English word “democracy” constrains how we use it now.

          I don’t think “democracy” is all that stable or uncontested a term. The second sentence of Roderick’s comment suggests that it’s not. For whatever it’s worth, my conception isn’t far from the one Christiano defends in the entry on democracy in SEP. But what he says in section 1 suggests why the term is hard to define, and remains contestable.


          • Right, I think your conception of democracy is part of what the ancient critics of Athens I referred to are picking up on. Taking “democratic” as you mean it, Athens wasn’t highly democratic, but it was significantly more democratic than the typical Greek polis — both in the degree of equal participation it offered to free adult male citizens, and in the degree of social, economic, and intellectual opportunity it offered to foreign visitors. So the critics are saying: take that aspect of Athens and extend it further, and look what you get. Of course they think you’re supposed to recoil in horror from what you get; but their modus tollens is our modus ponens.


          • I fail to see why you aren’t just stipulating that ‘democracy’ should be used as you’re using it. You say your conception of democracy is plausible, but I don’t see how plausibility could even apply to it. So far as I can see you’re not trying to give an account of something that exists, one that could be more or less plausible; you’re not taking a different view of the nature or character of anything that could be in disagreement with anyone else’s view of it. You’re just setting out a way to use a word. Aside from the rhetorical value of using a word that many people treat reflexively as positive, I don’t see what difference it would make if you said everything you say about ‘democracy’ here, but used a different term altogether. The same goes for the claim that ‘democracy’ isn’t the name of a regime, but the name for a feature of a regime; all I see here is a stipulation, one that runs contrary to common and long-standing usage and that, so far as it goes, is not obviously in anything other than verbal conflict with that usage. One might think that it makes for clearer understanding to think about regimes this way — and for whatever it’s worth I think that’s the sort of direction that Greek theoretical analysis of regimes was headed in — but it remains unclear to me what the point of insisting on this way of using ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ would be.

            It is of course true that if the Greeks coined the term, it might nonetheless have turned out that nothing instantiated it. I think that’s false as a historical matter, though I think it’s true and important that Greek democracies were significantly less democratic than they might have been. But when I say that, I’m using ‘democratic’ in a way that’s meant to track core features of Greek usage. It might also be true that none of the Greek democracies were democratic in your sense at all. But my response to that is that if it’s true, then your sense of ‘democratic’ is just an entirely different sense that has nothing more than a genealogical relationship to the Greek sense.

            Again, to be clear, my position is not that we should insist on using ‘democracy’ in a way that classical Greek thinkers would recognize as naming realities or concepts that they would have described in the language of democracy. My position is that insisting that an alternative usage according to which the Greek democracies were not democratic at all is the correct usage is empty verbal argument. If you’re not just indulging in empty verbal argument, then you’re either trying to give an account of something that exists or has existed or you’re trying to set out normative standards that we have some reason to accept. You appear to find it fruitful to use the term ‘democratic’ for that. I’ve no objection to that usage as such; what I deny is that it can be the one right way to use the term because it gets at the real truth about democracy. It doesn’t appear even to be trying to do that.

            So, to bring it back to Brennan, if he uses ‘democracy’ in some different sense than you do, then my reaction is to shrug my shoulders and say that I don’t care, because that matters only insofar as you and he differ either descriptively, explanatorily, or normatively. It seems clear that you differ in those ways, and that is what matters. It also matters if, as you suggest, he shifts between a narrow, stipulated use of terms like ‘democracy,’ ‘politics,’ ‘democratic activism,’ and so on, and a broader usage — because then he risks drawing fallacious conclusions about these things in one sense on the basis of arguments about them in the narrower sense. But except insofar as something like this is going on, you’re just insisting on a different usage, and that by itself shows nothing about the validity or soundness of his arguments or about the plausibility of his descriptive, explanatory, or normative claims. Instead it risks merely muddying the waters by creating the appearance that we’re disputing something real when in fact we’re just struggling to gain acceptance for a stipulative definition.

            You and I have gone around on similar issues before without making much progress. Perhaps we won’t this time, either.


            • I think the simplest response to make is to treat stipulations as semantic offers. When someone stipulates that he’ll be using a certain term X a certain way, try the stipulation on for size, and see what happens. How clarifying is it to accept the offer? So there are two offers on the table, mine and Brennan. Brennan’s conception of “democracy” is very narrow. Mine is in a sense revisionary, but in a different sense sufficiently plausible that I formulated it without looking at Christiano’s SEP entry on “democracy,” then later looked at it and discovered that it’s quite similar to mine. The lesson to learn here is that semantic disputes probably can’t be resolved in the combox of a blog, or even in several iterations of comments on a blog.


              • If the grounds for accepting the stipulation are that it’s easier to spell or something like that, then it’s pure stipulation. But if the grounds for accepting it are that it’s “clarifying,” then I don’t think it’s a pure stipulation, since it’s trying to capture some element of the meaning that’s taken to be crucial.

                Of course it can be hard to tell which is which. When Pluto was reclassified as no longer a planet, some saw it as pure stipulation, a matter of convenience. But others saw it as clarifying, along the lines of “what do we want the concept ‘planet’ for? what work does it do for us? well, we’ve used it to distinguish this one class of objects, large and interesting and few in number, from another class of objects, a bunch of small, boring objects, asteroids and such, enormous in number. and since it turns out that Pluto is more like the latter than the former, reclassifying it as not a planet serves the purpose of the term better. if we called it a planet, then in consistency we’d have to extend the term ‘planet’ to cover a vast shitload of Pluto-sized crap.”

                I think that’s more than just a convenience argument. But I see how someone could view it as merely a convenience argument. And even if it’s more than a convenience argument, I see how people could reasonably disagree as to whether it’s decisive.


    • First, on activism: I don’t think we need to disambiguate the concept of activism to distinguish good from bad forms of activism. Activism is just sustained action on behalf of a cause. Political action is sustained action on behalf of a political cause (which needs disambiguation because “politics” does, not because “activism” does). Some activism is worthwhile, some worthless. It depends on the nature of the cause, and on the aptness of the action undertaken on its behalf.

      Roughly, there are four possibilities here:

      1. Good cause, apt actions
      2. Good cause, inapt actions
      3. Bad cause, apt actions
      4. Bad cause, inapt actions

      Case (1) is laudable, case (4) is deplorable. The other two cases are mixed and may not be quite exclusive of each other. There’s too much activism out there (I mean, in the world, not just in this country or in our milieu) for anyone to be able to pass judgment on activism in an armchair way. I don’t even think it’s possible to pass judgment on university-based activism in an armchair way. I can think of university-based activism that falls into all four categories. This becomes easier if we include law schools with legal clinics that do pro bono work (or medical/nursing schools that do pro bono public health work). But even ordinary colleges and universities sponsor activism of a worthwhile nature. Virtually every community college in north Jersey does. And again, once we open things up to an international perspective, we get a wider lens picture of the phenomenon.

      For whatever it’s worth, in some countries, student activism is the route to political office (or if not office, then some “respectably adult” political career). That’s certainly true in Pakistan and in Palestine, but it even turned out to be true of people I knew at Princeton. Ted Cruz was a student activist. So were Yoram Hazony, Ali Abunimah, and Norman Finkelstein. So was Kim Daniels, and so was Kim Strassel. That’s just off the top of my head. In each of these cases, student activism was a preparation for “real world” political life. I don’t mean that we should approve of any of these peoples’ careers. My point is that their activism wasn’t just some frivolous hobby or means of avoiding the rigors of academic work.

      I find it unfortunate that so much time and effort is spent denouncing university-based activism of the case (4) variety. I don’t deny that it exists, or that it’s deplorable. Here’s a particularly idiotic case taking place just a few miles away from me.

      Every year, it seems, we feed another academic to the populist Minotaur here in New Jersey. Last year, it was Howard Finkelstein (Brookdale Community College). Before that, it was Lisa Durden (Essex County College). Before that, it was Elizabeth Snyder (Morris County College). This year, it’s Williamjames Hoffer. Maybe next year it’ll be Irfan Khawaja.

      Cases like these give activism a bad name. But I dispute that they’re typical, much less definitory, of activism (even of student activism). They’ve become the stereotype we carry around of “activism,” which is why I’m so anxious to defend activism when it’s attacked. Apparently, one has to be an activist about activism in order to displace the stereotypes people have of it. It seems a lot easier to attack and reinforce stereotypes than break them.

      That’s why people like Fernando Teson and David Bernstein need merely mention “Palestinian” to get the reflexive reaction “terrorist,” or mention “BDS” to get the reflexive reaction “anti-Semite.” It’s telling that if I rebut Teson, drawing on personal experience with non-violent, non-anti-Semitic political activism in Palestine, not only do I convince almost no one (present company excepted), but I get hauled before the Academic Vice President of my university, five years after the fact, to answer anonymous complaints for having done so. Those facts reflect the power of stereotypes. The complaints against me have plausbility because there’s something a priori disreputable about “Palestinian” and about “activism,” hence about their conjunction. Even “murdered Palestinian medic” seems disreputable if you observe that the medic in question was…an activist. “What was she doing being an activist when she could have been sitting at home being a nice, respectable free rider?”

      I’ve already gone on too long, but one last point on activism. Though I’ve mentioned examples of activists who have “gotten things done,” I have no objection to purely expressive forms of activism, depending on how and why they’re done. Public interest litigation on behalf of undocumented immigrants obviously “gets something done,” but so does standing in front of a detention center and singing songs. It tells those inside that they are not forgotten. I put that ambiguously. It sends that message both to those detained and to those doing the detaining. The message in question is worth sending regardless of what it “gets done” as far as legislation or policy is concerned. (Worth noting that many activist groups have 501(c)3 tax status that prevents them from getting anything done, legislatively speaking, but would be subject to onerous regulations if they didn’t adopt that status. The practical/legal obstacles that activists face to getting things done is a topic of its own.)

      Purely expressive messages acquire a certain salience or gravity when they’re sent–as activists do–every week without exception for twenty years, regardless of the weather or season. When you stand there in the cold or in the rain with your signs and your chants, the message you send to ICE is: you may hold power, but we are right, we are your adversaries–and we will never fucking give in (“eternal belligerence is the price of liberty”). That’s the attitude that fueled the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and the movement for gay rights. It’s why those activists ground their adversaries down until they achieved real progress. But it’s an attitude that’s partly sustained by expressive acts of solidarity–which is one reason I’m hesitant to criticize them, even when they appear at face value not to have a discernible point.


      • Right. Except I think you just disambiguated ‘activism.’

        Anyone who even entertained the proposition with which you began your post could only do so on one of two conditions: (i) she takes ‘activism’ or ‘social justice activism’ to be something other than simply ‘sustained action on behalf of a political cause’; (ii) she either thinks that (a) there are no apt (political) actions for good (political) causes or, much less plausibly, she thinks (b) there are no good (political) causes. My bet is that most people who take the proposition seriously fall under (i), but have no clear and consistent notion of what ‘social justice activism’ is (maybe it’s just that annoying sort of thing over there). But for reasons you’ve made clear, that just comes down to thinking that some political activism is bad, and it’s hard to see how anyone could reasonably avoid that conclusion. So the real argument, if there is any, with people who endorse the quotation lies with people who fall under (ii). Your original example seems like a pretty clear-cut counter-example to ii.a and ii.b.

        So if there is a serious question about activism understood somehow other than ‘that annoying stuff over there,’ it’s about what the good causes are and what the apt and inapt actions are. And by the time we’re asking that question, we’ve done the disambiguation that I called for and can talk about substance rather than talking past our opponents.


        • I don’t see that as “disambiguating activism” as much as pointing out that there are good and bad instances of it. All of the instances of activism, whether good or bad, are going to consist of sustained action on behalf of a cause. That we need more information than that quasi-definition to distinguish the good from the bad only says that we need more than a definition to differentiate between instances of the things that fall under it. That doesn’t imply that the definition was ambiguous, or that there’s any difficulty involved in predicating “activism” of bad activism.


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