Gulliver’s Democracy: Fragments of Democracy in a World in Fragments…

We do not want another Auschwitz.

"Work Makes You Free." "Umm..." quick glimpse and: "In that case... I'll take a holiday, danke."

“Work Makes You Free.”
“Umm…” quick glimpse and: “In that case… I’ll take a holiday, danke.”

To be human is to be rational, surely. Or… is it?

That human beings are first and foremost rational has informed the ‘common sense’ of Western thought from the Enlightenment onwards. This underlying assumption is rarely questioned. There are some who would disagree however…

The usual suspects? Trust the Germans to get there first.

Theodore Adorno and Max Horkeimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment decried the transformation of the critical edge of reason into ‘instrumental reason’ or rationalization. They argued that it was this transformation that culminated in Auschwitz.

When we use our reason not to discuss, debate or make sense of the world together with others, but instead use it to rationalise actions that lack a moral compass and are aimed solely towards our benefitting materially at others’ expense – take this to an extreme – and what you get is genocide. Strong words? Maybe so… but their argument is persuasive.

Whereto go the Germans, the French are not far behind. He-he!

Contender for our third musketeer? Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization argued that ‘reason’ is articulated through the systematic silencing of what is deemed ‘unreason’.

Children for example are not deemed to be fully rational, so often they are denied a voice. You think this is only theory? How many instances of abuse that has gone undiscovered or unpunished did you read about this year? This month? I bet you, if you google it now, you’ll find it in the today’s news too somewhere. Perhaps even somewhere near you.

What about women who were denied the vote for decades because men would not allow them this status as rational creatures? We have the vote now, but the myth persists. When was the last time you heard someone make a joke about women being crazy? You are crazy. You are not rational. Shut up then.

And as to madness… One in three people today suffer from mental illness. This is no minority. But to be mad is to be invisible. To be mad is to be silent. If no one can see you, hear you, do you still exist?

Yet, Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason”,  this motto of the Enlightenment remains compelling.

This assumption of the primacy of rationality continues to claim hold on the modern imaginary and lies at the heart of all politics that advocates consensual forms of democracy.

Do we have to agree to be good citizens?
During his visit to the Lagado academy, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver encounters a doctor who had discovered the optimum path to political consensus.
He recommended that, “when parties in a State are violent,” the brain of each opposing party be cut in half, and each half be mended together accordingly with one of the opposite party, so that “the two half brains being left to debate the matter between themselves within the space of one scull, would soon come to a good understanding, and produce that moderation as
well as regularity of thinking, so much to be wished for.”
Brain surgery? Some solution!
The doctor may have thought it ‘a trifle’ the difficulty entailing such an operation, but this colourful example simply exaggerates an already over-extended degree of ‘shared’ meaning, norms and values required so that rationally motivated consensus can be reached through discourse.

Dissensus, disagreement, and antagonism are an ever-present part of the political landscape. This is no bad thing.

Still, if discord makes you uncomfortable and you’d sooner get on the same page with whomever… Communicative action, or discourse, is one possible solution.

But do keep in mind that by focusing on communication you bypass the issue of agency. Action is might!

Political action cannot be fully incorporated into communicative action. Formal consent does not mean that all relations of domination and subordination have been eliminated.

The advances gained by feminist, civil and political movements have not been achieved by chit-chat alone, but through real struggles.

It may be desirable, but perhaps unlikely that similar advances in the future will be achieved by limiting democratic dissent to discourse.

Should the Balnibarbian doctor’s operation be successful, it is nonetheless uncertain that even the advantage of a ‘common skull’ could ensure the end to conflict that he so desired.


Join the debate on vicbriggs’s blog

Which do you think is more important for democracy:

Defending the right to protest or bringing everyone to a consensus?


This is Democracy Gulliver-style.

Are you a Yahoo? Lilliputian? Brobdingnagian or Houyhnhnm?

Have your say either way!


You have a voice too. Use it.

And if this debate is not to your taste, why not try and find one on Project O?

Make your opinion matter. Here is the link: