What would it mean to choose democracy over liberalism? What would it be like to live in a basic democracy?
These are the questions posed by Josiah Ober’s outstandingly important book, Demopolis. Demopolis is a thought experiment, owing much to classical Athens; an attempt to envision a condition of human flourishing which is not predicated on personal autonomy, inherent human rights, distributive justice or a commitment to neutrality at the level of state authority and religion.
This is a simple question, but devastating in terms of consequence. Could we live in a community of masterless co-operation, even at a large scale? Could the sleeping sovereign of the people awake?
Ober has an unrivalled knowledge of the classical material, and is able to demonstrate that Athens offers a case study in historical time of democratic behaviour (accepting its limitations towards gender and slavery, which will in the end form part of the argument). The larger part of the book however is given over to the more general case, which is in its most basic form as follows:
Basic democracy is reasonably stable collective self-government by an extensive and socially diverse body of citizens; it requires rules, limitations on power and the capacity to punish transgression.
Basic democracy provides for the material conditions of human flourishing; promotes free exercise of sociability, reason and communication; and sustains liberty, equality and dignity (but only at a limited level).
At its heart, basic democracy requires civic education.
The foundation of Demopolis is presented in a quasi-fictional way – a self-selected group of Founders who share a disposition against autocracy. This can be read as a challenge – where are you? Most of Ober’s readers will be in this group, but the suggestion is that a lot of anti-liberals will be as well, and here is what we can identify throughout as an underlying emotive tug, a call across to the other side. My interest is partly in Ober’s argument and partly in the sorts of arguments one might put up against or alongside Ober.
The book rests on a fairly clear neo-utilitarian basis, and a lot of the arguments are based on reasoning over what is most functional for this community to flourish. Like much neo-utilitarian thought, there is a game theory approach to this experiment. An inclusive approach to citizenship is an early example – dividing the community into ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ creates tensions. The ‘floor’ is the empowerment of ‘all persons culturally imagined as ctizens’ – and the imagination of the ‘Founders’ of Demopolis is generous. But the obligations are significant, and necessary to meet the well-known ‘free rider’ problem. Ober acknowledges it might be too great a cost; the world is imperfect. So Demopolis ‘has good reason to devise incentive-compatible rules governing the civil status of resident non-citizens and to enter into agreements with neighboring communities, so that interstate migration, predicated on regime preference, remains feasible and peaceful and does not threaten security’ (56).
Ober moves on to civic education. It must be correct that for any community genuinely to flourish, it must have some concept of how to encourage and instil habits that conduce to that flourishing. Demopolis has to construct more than a school class in civics; it requires a lifelong programme whereby citizens can ‘grasp and internalize the logic of the basic rules and associated norms, and develop the corresponding behavioral civic habits’ (71). Learning the habitus of democracy demands a psychological motivation, but Ober’s psychology is relatively thin. The citizens behave as individuals with dispositions to rational debate, intuitions of basic fairness, and a capacity to see through to the end of the game. You imagine they would all have chosen correctly in the prisoner’s dilemma.
In addition, the metaphysical arguments of liberalism cannot stand in for psychological motivations, only the fact and action of being democratic. Ober starts from statements such as ‘individuals with differing and potentially competing interests are interdependent because they must cooperate if they are to flourish in a mutable environment’ (104). Ober then argues that it is not clear that the only guarantee of the conditions which permit effective interpendence is either a dictator (however benevolent) or a claim for the intrinsic necessity of liberal values such as dignity, freedom and equality. In other words, the citizens, who already have strong dispositions towards autonomy, aren’t going to be persuaded to work together to make Demopolis flourish by the Founders telling them they must believe in liberal values. In fact, they might not be all that liberal. But the rules of civic participation and the acceptance of the cost entailed, coupled with the application of basic utilitarianism, should get them to behave in ways which operate in what Ober calls a ‘zone of dignity’ which avoids treating some people as less than others, removing their rights, or denying difference and pushing towards an excess of equality. Participatory democracy is the school in which we must learn our values; the values do not by themselves determine the outcome.
Having got this far, Ober has to deal with one real-world practicality, which is governance. Do the people have to meet every time there is a decision to be made? Ober’s problem (and it is not only a problem for his arguments of course) is that if the answer were yes, then that de facto limits the size of state. Demopolis could only (even in a technologically enabled world) be the size of a small town. So the issue of representation, and therefore the ceding of sovereignty, comes to the fore, and Ober argues that the community has to be more than sleeping, in Tuck’s metaphor; it has to have the capacity and indeed the will not just to revoke authority, but to avoid elite capture by an active input. Ober’s gamed approach is through ‘relevant expertise aggregation’ which essentially argues that as long as experts are behaving honestly and sharing information, the community can make decisions that are better than random, and not worse than in autocracy. The theory is a sort of modification of a Condorcet jury theory, and Ober needs it, or something like it, to set against the variety of suggested alternatives to one person one vote, for instance quadratic voting, which offers mechanisms of counting intensity of opinion, which are antithetical to a basic principle of equality in participation, and potentially negative in their utilitarian consequences.
It is interesting that Ober concludes this argument with a brief reference to referendums, suggesting that they might be the way to go but that there is no real empirical evidence because of the poverty of civic education offered by modern democracies. This whole argument, the problem of expertise and the experience of direct democracy on binary decisions, is, for the United Kingdom, very raw.
From the outset Ober wants to combine normative political theory (what we need) and positive political theory (how to get there) in a realistic context, hence the use of the Athenian example as a real example – so the book’s aim is to argue that Demopolis is what we need to flourish, that it can be shown in a utilitarian world to be at least as good as other versions which have the demerits of not being democracies, and no-one can say we can’t manage it because, look, there is Athens.
One might argue that Ober is more positive about the effectiveness of Athenian democracy, its genuine avoidance of elite capture, and its capacity over the long term to win an argument about its merits than might be justified, but he is at pains to note that Athens is not under any real description liberal. This is a key argument; you can have an illiberal democracy, even if you cannot have stable liberalism without democracy.
Ober is answering then the challenge of the alleged failure of liberalism. Many have hoped that if we are genuinely liberal, democracy will follow. But many people aren’t persuaded by the liberal argument, intrinsically or out of experience, and the obvious next steps take us away from democracy as a form of government. So Ober’s point is that it is much better and safer to argue for basic democracy first, and one can be reasonably confident that at least some of what we want from liberalism in terms of respect for others and an insistence on dignity are going to follow. We might not get everything (Ober is happier than I would be to surrender the freedom of religion argument) but we might get more than under autocracy, totalitarian managerialism or mob rule. In another sense he is answering the alleged failure of democracy; if democracy gives us Trump and worrying signs of resurgent nationalism, is there a danger we might lose it altogether? At the end, Ober admits what he elides at the beginning, that the book was written in the shadow of these fears, even if in a spirit of optimism.
I have worried more about Ober’s book than about any book I have read for some time. It is genuinely brilliant in argument, beautifully written, urgent and humane. And yet it both proposes a solution which I find challenging on many different levels, and is open to counter-arguments or corroborating texts which I find problematic.
One area of concern is that the more I read and reflect on this book, the more I wonder if I could live in Demopolis. Would I actually be prepared to pay the cost? Could any of us be as good a citizen as might need to be required, all the time? If not, are the inbuilt mechanisms of Demopolis strong enough? And stronger than those of liberalism?
Sociologically, Demopolis requires a habitus of democratic participation, but potentially at a very high level to overcome free riders and elite capture, and to sustain a presence in the zone of dignity – higher even than is required by Rawls’ veil of ignorance, where to a degree we leave the judgement to others and work with the consequences. Is Demopolis even more fragile because it depends on our daily recalibration of our interests against the community in a perpetual working out of our shared utility?
Another element of my worry about Demopolis, and the potential response, is a basic matter of scalability. It is not clear to me how one operates Demopolis at the level of a territory of equivalent size to most contemporary states; it is certainly not clear to me how one operates at a global level. And just as there is perhaps at the heart of liberalism an imperial, globalizing and expansionist tendency, so underpinning some of the alternatives is a turning inwards. In this way, Ober’s arguments might come to be welcomed by anti-liberalist thinkers (whereas Ober seeks to ground the possibility of liberalism on a firmer shore).
Take for instance the recent and much less well-argued book by Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, one of a wave of doom-ridden jeremiads about modernity. What Deneen does well is to show that classical liberals and modern liberals come from the same place and that they represent in a sense the logical outcomes of moving in two different directions from the same point, and arriving at the same disaster. By stressing individual autonomy, both end up with a large state and a low degree of self-restraint. Classic liberals need the state to protect their autonomy, which leads to massive wealth accumulation, which then needs further protection; modern liberals need the state to pick up the pieces of an atomised society which has lost the power for self-help. Modern liberals complain about individuals who are too free to accumulate, whilst classical liberals complain about individuals whose freedom to self-express knows no bounds.
Deneen advocates virtues of self-restraint; ‘liberalism rejects the ancient conception of liberty as the learned capacity of human beings to conquer the slavish pursuit of base and hedonistic desires’ (37). This is a moralistic extrapolation from the same sorts of argument about the failure of liberalism which give rise to Demopolis. The normative argument is about personal virtue, the positive argument is about the value of living life at a lower community level; the historical argument is that Madison was wrong and Tocqueville saw the best of America in the towns of New England. But if liberalism is in crisis (which is a much more interesting story than that it is doing fine, but is imperfect), it is not clear that an inward turn offers more than a palliative.
Above all, then, what worries me about Demopolis is that it is hiding its illiberal heart. Those treaties to export those who don’t fit are alarming; what rules or decision-making processes guarantee protection of minorities? There is still a problem of consent – what is the contract underpinning Demopolis? Ober is presumably thinking of Socrates in the Crito; the argument that if you live somewhere you accept its laws – you can disobey but you must expect and accept the judgement. How this works for us at a local or a globalized level is less clear; Ober at least offers a fiction for consent, but if it is not matched by rights, what does it gain us? The answer is, it appears, in the optimism of basic prosperity unequally but sufficiently distributed, which is precisely what Deneen describes as liberalism’s most fundamental (and unsuccessful) wager.
Some of this has been said before, and one interesting parallel text is an interview in Le Monde Diplomatique in 1998 with the great theorist of the social imaginary, Cornelius Castoriadis. It is appropriate to set Castoriadis alongside Ober, since he also returned repeatedly to the Greek world, and cites some of the same Greek texts in his interview. Like Deneen, too, he notes the devastation of the natural world effected by pure liberalism. And there are echoes of the same critique of excess, and also the same answers as Ober offers – offer better civic education, create more political engagement, be like the Greeks. But for Castoriadis, it is the undue reliance on the market which is delivering the modern world into its chaos. The market knows no limits, and liberalism has become about possession rather than social improvement. But the original drive was not mistaken as such. The liberties gained are not to be surrendered. It is a matter of recognising that true liberation needs to be found through a wider awareness; ‘une société vraiment libre, une société autonome, doit savoir s’autolimiter, savoir qu’il y a des choses qu’on ne peut pas faire ou qu’il ne faut même pas essayer de faire ou qu’il ne faut pas désirer.’
For me this goes beyond virtue, and beyond the utilitarianism of Demopolis, to a consciousness of global community. The danger of Demopolis and Deneen’s New England towns is that they survive to deploy their models of rational utilitarian behaviour or virtuous self-reflection in more and more isolated communities. As Castoriadis says, ‘La liberté, c’est très difficile.’ The global reach of liberalism is terrifying and totalizing, but it also in that sense faces the reality which is that we cannot close the doors on the more than 5 billion people who have been shut out from the advances of the past two hundred years. This means that the weight that is put on basic democracy without liberalism is huge.
What is so extraordinary about Ober’s book is the courage to make the argument and make us face up to what it means for us truly to be citizens of Demopolis. What is so terrifying is the fragility of the solution, basic democracy. To enter the next phase of our history without the fictions of a shared set of values means that everything depends on our abilities to choose, and in Castoriadis’ terms, to know what we must not desire.
 J. Ober, Demopolis: Democracy before Liberalism in Theory and Practice, Cambridge, 2017; the volume represents Ober’s Seeley Lectures in Cambridge, and I owe my knowledge of it to John Robertson.
 On neo-utilitarianism see H. Joas, W. Knöbl, Social Theory: Twenty Introductory Lectures, Cambridge, 2009, p. 94-122. They note the rather significant question as to whether anyone does act like a utility maximizing actor. It is also notable just how much more complicated Demopolis could be if subjected to a richer social theory account. As a very basic starting point, critical theory would at least introduce a notion of dialectic; see R. Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School, Cambridge 1981, p. 54: ‘We can’t be fully free without having perfect knowledge, nor acquire perfect knowledge unless we live in conditions of complete freedom. Our “real interests” are those we would form only if our society satisfies the utopian condition of perfect freedom … still … we may be free enough to recognize how we might act to abolish some of the coercion from which we suffer … The task of a critical theory is to show us which way to move.’
 One could I think read this equally on Ober’s account as over-intrusive legislation to the full-blown horrors of the worst kinds of totalitarian state. Ober doesn’t make the point this way but it is a place where he is open to being aligned to the catastrophist readings of liberalism discussed below.
 R. Tuck, The Sleeping Sovereign: The Invention of Modern Democracy, Cambridge, 2015.
 See also J. Ober, ‘Equality, legitimacy, interests, and preferences: historical notes on Quadratic Voting in a political context,’ Public Choice 2017, responding to proposals by Eric Posner and others, e.g. Posner and E. G. Weyl, ‘Voting Squared: Quadratic Voting in Democratic Politics,’ Vanderbilt Law Review, 68.2 2015; J. Ober, ‘Democracy’s Wisdom: An Aristotelian Middle Way for Collective Judgment,’ The American Political Science Review, 107: 1 (February 2013), pp. 104-122, for a fuller account of relevant expertise aggregation.
 Space as a concept is absent as yet from the theory of Demopolis, even though it is central to any account of politics and the shaping of community, and this absence is perhaps one of the reasons for the somewhat abstract nature of the account.
 P. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed, Yale, 2018; others include E. Luce, The Retreat of Western Liberalism, London, 2017; M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, New York, 2017, but the list is long. On liberalism itself, see E. Fawcett, Liberalism: The Life of an Idea, Princeton, 2014, and A. Ryan, The Making of Modern Liberalism, Princeton, 2014.
 Much of the critical account of liberalism is surprisingly even further from critical theory. Deneen’s unattributed use of Weber’s iron cage metaphor (p5) rather makes the point, as does his dismissal of postmodernism and feminist theory – ‘the main practical achievement of [the] liberation of women has been to move many of them into the workforce of capitalism’ (179). This seems (at best) a reductive reading of the cited source, N. Fraser, Fortunes of Feminism: From State-Managed Capitalism to Neoliberal Crisis, London 2013.
 Ironically, Tocqueville also knew those towns to be riven, small-minded, vicious playgrounds of ambition and corruption. One reading of his argument is that it was better for people to be consumed with politics at that level than to have the centralised state of the French monarchy; see L. Jaume, Tocqueville: The Aristocratic Sources of Liberty, Princeton 2013.
 See B. Emmott, The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea, London 2017.
 ‘the replacement of one unequal and unjust system with another system enshrining inequality that would be achieved not by oppression and violence but with the population’s full acquiescence, premised on the ongoing delivery of increasing material prosperity along with the theoretical possibility of class mobility’ (138).