“If Milton’s Lucifer seems attractive to us, it is because, in our time, Public Opinion is God. Non serviam,” Williamson writes in The Smallest Minority, a collection of separate but connected essays. These essays deal with a few specific themes, and shed light on Williamson’s very brief and controversial tenure at The Atlantic, and the overall cowardice the senior editorial board of the publication displayed by firing him in response to an online mob. That consists of a whole chapter at the end, and is the best writing of the whole book.
But that’s not its thesis. “If you are expecting a rousing paean to democracy here, perhaps with a little liberal nod in the direction of free speech and general toleration and other liberal-democratic pieties that you may imagine to be central to my theme here, then you are going to be disappointed. I come not to praise democracy but to bury it,” Williamson writes.
The book really deals with the debate about today’s cultural moment, where Williamson tries to answer, or at least explore, the causes of social discontent, and traces it to Ochlocracy or, in simple terms, mob rule.
Unlike the common definition of mobocracy, ochlocracy is institutionalized majoritarianism by a bunch of people who are no more effective or intelligent than apes, but with additional victimhood. “The problem for mass democracy is that the demos does not think. It cannot. It lacks the requisite apparatus. Groups do not think in any meaningful sense. People think—one at a time,” Williamson writes.
Naturally, ochlocracy leads to “periodic and desultory mob rule effected through the exploitation and domination of both public and private centers of power,” or in other words, tyranny of the majority. “The modern primitive is no less primitive for having a smartphone.”
People Are Dumb
Williamson identifies an interconnected mechanism fueling the problems with discourse. On one hand, the majority of the people have free speech, which is codified and good. But the problem is, the majority of the people, are also, frankly, dumb. Most people have nothing interesting to add to the conversation, and essentially do not communicate to exchange ideas, but to signal to their own tribes, and to feel important.
“Social media has made a perverse contribution to public life: By giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak, it has revealed how little of interest most people have to say—and how little the content of what they say actually matters when set against in-group tribal affiliation,” Williamson writes.
This unchecked egalitarianism is against Nature, which is hierarchical. By contrast, social media is quasi-Marxist in the sense that it destroys all hierarchy and leads to anarchy and chaos. Or, in Williamson’s words, “embrace of the tribe is only lukewarm, sterile, and superficial: a four-second online hook-up, not a genuine intimate relationship. Small wonder they are depressed.”
But they are not by themselves a problem. It is further complicated due to the need for public intellectuals to feel “satisfied,” and for the corporates to have obedience. “The original sin of the American intellectual is his desire to be popular,” Williamson writes.
Leftist control of the corporate sector has further exacerbated the obedience to majoritarianism. Again, Williamson does not mince words: “Obedience is what the corporate Kultur demands. Like all totalitarian regimes, corporations are managed by people who believe they are doing good, and that if a few eggs have to be cracked to make the proverbial omelet, then so be it.”
His objections to leftist control of corporations reflects similar arguments from Tucker Carlson, who recently argued that the biggest threat to faith, flag, and family isn’t the tyrannical nation-state or national government, but the private sector, which will wreck everything conservatives hold dear for borderless capital and unchecked labor mobility. “Progressives would not trust corporations with that kind of power if they did not believe that they could control them and thus wield that power themselves by proxy,” Williamson says in the book, in tacit agreement with Carlson.
This development, according to Williamson, has led to the return of the original worry facing every society since Hellenistic Greece: an unchecked mass, a growing majoritarian instinct on both ends of the political spectrum, and cowardly and complicit gatekeepers of society. Initially, the fear of unchecked mobocracy was the norm, “fear of such anarcho-tyranny has been a cornerstone of Anglo-American liberalism and republican government throughout the world.”
Williamson adds, “Efforts to contain it represent an intelligent evolution of political thought: The English developed the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which holds that there were some things that even the king may not do; the American Founders, in turn, built into their constitutional architecture the principle that there are many things that parliament may not do, either.” But the checks and balances are lost: “A combination of deep stupidity and casual authoritarianism already had begun to disfigure our public discourse.”
We are, empirically, living in the best of times, and yet “the masses are not happy. They are miserable. They are masses; misery is what they do.” And the intellectual class, the free and independent thinking individuals, the barrier against majoritarian tyranny, is failing. This is where Williamson demands a return to the independent individual, willing to stand athwart history and yell “Non Serviam.”
A Choice of Dystopias
That’s all well and good. But, for someone who came to bury democracy, Williamson did not go far enough. He is correct in identifying the problems in the greater Anglosphere, including Australia, India, and the United Kingdom, but the biggest contradiction at the heart of his arguments need to be addressed.
Social media and online outrage are indeed behind the polarization. Hans Morgenthau, the godfather of post-Cold War American foreign policy, once wrote the same thing, that a rational foreign policy for a great power is incompatible with emotional public opinion.
From Palmerston to Disraeli, Teddy Roosevelt to Nixon, Morgenthau to Kennan, there has always been a healthy skepticism of mob rule and a gloomy pessimism about mass democracy. Social media has given an Oscar Wilde-ian mask to otherwise normal people, giving a place for their vilest human instincts to erupt, a coarsening of discourse and society.
Just look at any online comment boards, or Twitter. In an earlier era, people would have to read, then write, a coherent letter to the editor, which was vetted by the gatekeepers of society. These days no one reads, but everyone comments, most of which are abusive or idiotic, and often both.
But to suggest that masses are by definition majority-moronic, and to expect a return of free individuals and independent thinking, is, for lack of a better word, utopian. As Mary Eberstadt recently said, the recent fad of “intersectionality” is not a flaw, but the logical end-game of libertarian individualism, where everyone is unique, and every opinion and silly bit of narcissism needs to be respected. What if progressivism is not a corruption of liberalism, but the child of it?
I checked Williamson’s book for any citation of Jason Brennan. There wasn’t any, but there should have been. The logical end game to battle ochlocracy isn’t further individual liberty-empowering imbeciles, but epistocracy, a rule of “the enlightened.” That argument has already been made thoroughly by Brennan. The problem is, “rule of the enlightened” often leads to a very different form of tyranny. Ask the French, and the Soviets.
What then, if not “an enlightened, rationalist central committee” or “individualism, leading to tribalism, leading to majoritarian tyranny”? The choice shouldn’t be between two dystopias. Classical conservatism provides the answer.
Perhaps empowering time-tested units, such as faith, flag and family; building a common national purpose regardless of class, creed, or race; a return to Benjamin Disraeli or Teddy Roosevelt-type one-nation Tory-ism. That would, dare I say, need some nation-building projects at home, an overhaul of the left-liberal edifice, a “reactionary instinct.” And I am not sure Williamson would approve of it.
Nevertheless, the book is a much-needed polemic for our times, all the needless profanity notwithstanding. It also has some juicy tidbits about how duplicitous some major media figures are in the United States (like Lydia Polgreen of the New York Times, in chapter eight).
As for Jeffrey Goldberg, and his “delusions of testicular adequacy,” in Williamson’s words, all I can say is, what a sad loss for The Atlantic to let go of such a writer, due to “some seething young woman with an unfortunate All-Lesbian World Bowling Champion haircut loitering glumly in the coffee room.”