DEMOCRACY AND THE CHALLENGE OF POWER, by David Spitz. Columbia University Press, 1958.
“Power” seems to have a peculiar fascination for the modern mind, in part, perhaps, because men feel en. trapped by the superordinate-subordinate relations which become more ubiquitous as technological and industrial processes grow in complexity. A whole school of political thinkers has told us that “power” is the essence of politics and during the past generation studies by Bertrand Russell, Charles Merriam, and Bertrand De Jouvenel have sought to probe its anatomy and physiology. They have also endeavored to show us how it can, in the words of one writer, be “tamed.” Moreover, self-criticisms by those of us who call ourselves socialists have centered in considerable measure on our alleged past deficiencies in this field.
Throughout most of his discussion, David Spitz treads familiar ground and with relative brevity. All “democratic” states, he correctly maintains, have in fact denied the legitimate rights of at least some of their citizens and have failed to make power-holders fully responsible. Moreover, private associations—whether economic, religious, or cultural—while outside the formal structure of democratic government as such, have in many instances impaired the possibility of effective control. For churches, corporations, and unions, either through their own internal undemocratic structures or through their utilization of the inevitable social power which they possess, have made it more difficult to implement democratic ideals.
What is more, all the devices which have been suggested to limit the abuses of power in so-called democratic societies are inadequate. Institutional schemes for the fragmentization and decentralization of power, such as one finds in the American political system, tend to fail: they become so complicated that governments cannot act, thus leaving crucial decisions to private power structures which are not effectively accountable to the community as a whole. True, it has been suggested that the rediscovery of “right” principles and an appeal to them might tend more nearly to make power the instrument of equity and justice. But Spitz rightly criticizes Mr. Walter Lippmann and all those who claim that they can discover and make evident such principles. “Natural law” doctrines are subjected to a criticism which, in some measure at least, they certainly deserve. And the “conserva469 tive” appeal to “tradition” is correctly countered by the question, “Which tradition?” But suppose we can discover what the psychologists call “democratic” personalities and then proceed to put them in positions of leadership. Would we not in this event be on the road to a solution? Here again the critic is doubtful. In the first place, our ability to discriminate between “democratic” and “...
For just $19.95 a year, get access to new issues and decades' worth of archives on our site.
Print + Online
For $35 a year, get new issues delivered to your door and access to our full online archives.