The Cycle of Democratic Life

I perhaps imagined, and may even have been told, that my advancing years would afford some modicum of understanding. Yet in my case the very opposite has occurred. My work is absurd and dumb repetition has claimed me. It was for this reason that I agreed to travel. I hoped that by staring from the window of a speeding train some miraculous solution would present itself. And so I went to Rome, there to visit a college that works with my own. The train went all the way there, I attended my meetings and came most of the way back. Of course, no insight emerged. Slumped in my seat and contemplating failure, I was at last interrupted by a commotion by the door

What confronted me was a huge bear of a man, struggling, with the dubious aid of a terrified porter, to arrange himself in the seat opposite. With the copious waving of hands, he finally presented in all his finery. He wore a leather cap. He was black and had freckles; perhaps in his late sixties.

“Doctor Eugene Orro,” he said, fixing me with dark eyes and extending a massive fist with which he clearly intended to enclose my own. “From Chicago. Please give me all your money.”

I may have blinked, but nothing more escaped. I am not an expressive person.

Observing my reticence, he asked if there was anything he could give me in return.

I laughed. “There is one thing.”

Would I say it? It seemed absurd. “I do not know how to live. Can you help with that?”

“Done!” he snapped, and we conversed for the remainder of my journey. He spoke excitedly, and tugged at my sleeve to emphasize his points. We discussed politics and the sorry state of our democratic institutions. He told me of his life. I then gave him all the cash I had and we parted. I could not have known that this would be his last conversation, for he hid from me the purpose of his journey till the end.


Eugene Orro grew up during the Great Depression in the United States of America, which made him at least twenty years older than I had supposed. He was parented by his grandmother, who ran a Speakeasy in Chicago during prohibition. Taught at an early age to keep a folded one hundred dollar bill in his shoe “just in case,” he learned also to read books, run numbers and stay alive.

“In your professed lack of knowledge,” he intoned, grinning naughtily at me, “you are right up with the very latest thinking. For all our science and technology, an understanding of society entirely eludes us. We cannot preserve peace, feed the world, arrange our politics or save the planet. We cannot remove inequality, nor avoid suffering – even when that suffering is avoidable. Nor have we learned to control our leaders, and are now stuck fast in a political system in ruins. Your failure to understand is quite beautiful, a kind of child of its time. You share it with others. We can, therefore, take you as a subject of study. Through you, we can examine the society of which you are a part. You profess that your life of the mind has failed. So does our collective dream of knowing now confront its limit. We barely comprehend a single human mind, let alone the interaction of millions, and are thus condemned to be spectators of our own foolishness and cruelty.”

From his pocket, he produced what looked like the remains of a donut, inspected it in his bulbous hand and then placed it carefully on the table between us. “You are likely a democrat,” he said, almost with a sneer. “You sound English. You vote, you have deployed your troops in war, which your government says is to extend democracy. Yet what is this democracy you carry? A treasured set of institutions, certainly; but also, a scant figment. It is the minimum popular involvement elites could get away with in the historical struggle for state power. Nowadays, our rulers claim special expertise, and instinctively strive to further reduce the space of politics; to ever enclose it in the bonds of administration. So too do they claim to have been chosen by the people. Yet, as Rousseau pointed out, after election, the people are again enslaved.” He coughed deeply. “Expertise,” he said, waving his hand back and forth. “It’s nine parts privilege. The people are capable of far greater self-rule than is commonly supposed. I a constantly amazed at the horror with which most people regard the direct judgment of the citizenry.”

I had to admit that my civic activity left something to be desired, but he waved this away and again grasped my sleeve.

“Our democracy is a figment, but it’s a devilishly good one. Able to deflect every criticism, it also serves to confine our imagination, so that what we have now appears to be the best we could ever have. You cannot call for greater constraint of corporations, for politicians say they are doing their best in a natural world of global markets. You cannot demand more popular participation, for to do so is to invite the charge that the people are dangerous and stupid. You cannot claim that democracy operates as a mere cover for elite rule, because, even at this late stage in our history, it seems ‘self-evident’ that we must have a dominant class. As in our magical past, the cult of leadership thrives, and seeing through its spells is thankless work. From within, incumbent elites busy themselves with the symbols of power. They seek ways to govern and exercise control, not solutions to real problems. Only one thing that threatens them, and that is the people assembled.”


From the photograph, two lines of young black men in caps and leather flight jackets stare out. He is front and centre: mischievous, waiting to break away the moment the picture is done, to spring up and engage his colleagues in conversation. The Second World War transformed him. He flew P51s with a segregated unit in Italy, later made into a film called the ‘Red Tails.’ Among tedious evenings, somehow interspersed with the most terrifying of flights, a white Texan regiment up the road scheduled a mission briefing. But they gave the black unit the wrong time. Orro’s crew wandered around awkwardly for a while and then drifted back to their base. During the mission that followed, they had absolutely no notion of what they were trying to do. After that, he drank in order to fly. When he worried about doing so, he had merely to observe that his colleagues drank more. He knew all along he would survive. Of course, the rest of his crew felt the same, so that when someone died, you had to think of yourself as in some way different from them.

“I have two books,” he declared, pompously. “To be like Tolstoy, I should really have three. The last, the Memoirs of Jean Meslier, the atheist French priest, is missing, perhaps borrowed by my son.” He extracted a tattered volume from the bag at his side and slapped it on the table beside the donut. “Number one,” he said. “Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.” A stubby finger pressed down on the book’s cover. “One side of humanity conjured for our edification. A book almost entirely devoted to the control of fear. In it, Hobbes coaxes us to take away authority, and to see that what remains is our cruelty and self-destruction. He thus asserts that it is authority that makes society possible. All organisations require hierarchy; there is no other way. Unable to rule ourselves, citizens skulk around the margins of government, despised for our apathy and fanaticism, ridiculed for our blind obedience. In our democracy, and perhaps always across our history, elites fear the people. It is important that you understand that this is a physical revulsion, and that we are their enemy.

“Of course, what threatens the social order is not, in fact, the foolish populace at all; it is elites themselves. As Niccolo Machiavelli knew, and history clearly shows, the worst horrors of humanity have been the work of Princes. It is them we must thank for the organisation of violence. Perhaps, you say, we should not have followed; but I say: they should not have led. Today, our guardians are incompetent, and do little more than busy themselves in a shadow world of bureaucracy. Generations have now wasted their lives in this fantasy land, and I see you are among them.”


The people will burst from their institutions; this was the gist of his remarks. He said the plebs of Republican Rome became so frustrated with the Senate that they twice walked out of the city en mass, refusing to return until their demands were met.

After the war, he played football, American style, and was briefly the starting running back for the Chicago Bears. Injury problems in his knees and shoulder meant constant injections; this at a time when there was little regulation of such practices. He recalled the back-room coach that taught him how to play through the pain, but it was a lesson hard won. Finally unable to play at all, he returned to college, there to study philosophy. Now twenty-seven and with a young family, Orro threw himself into community work and the civil rights movement. Hauled up in front of McCarthy’s Committee for Un-American Activity, he was proud to receive their subsequent letter proclaiming him “innately predisposed to destroy institutions.”

“Elite fear of the people,” he continued, “means that populism is always conceived in its authoritarian form: a charismatic leader mobilising a foolish populace with promises and scapegoats. There are always parties ready to exploit the confusion and desperation of the people. Yet when everybody acts together, there is no greater force. This specter alone serves to check elite power.”

When he saw that the civil rights movement was over, he returned to college, now in clinical psychology. He gained his doctorate at the age of forty-five.

Old Age

A second book appeared from his bag. Waving it in front of him, he said, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality.” With an exaggerated wink, he placed it carefully atop the Hobbes. “Now let me ask you; can citizens raise their game? Can they rule themselves? Can we resist authoritarian mobilisation? Rousseau stands for the possibility that these things are possible. Don’t believe Hobbes, he says, for to imagine a world without authority is to imagine this world, us, corrupted as we are, suddenly cut loose of restraint. Of course there would be looting; an activity identical to shopping in all but the act of payment; and of course there would be trouble with leaders, lots of trouble. But so would there be democracy, populist, effective and surprising. The people will again awake, and with the planet in ruins around them, will not be well pleased.”

He sighed, and looked out across the speeding fields. “We have had our turn,” he said. “We failed. Authority awaits us, more and new in type. It will be an altogether more disordered world. We degenerate, and ‘fools will revel in their domain.’ This is because, like you, we know nothing and stubbornly refuse to learn. Even the passing of time, from childhood to adulthood, and then to old age, remains to us, the deepest of mysteries! Of death, we know absolutely nothing.” He looked surprised. “I am 84 years old!”

I saw then, for the first time, that he was in pain. Every part of his body tugged at his attention and he continually shifted his position to ease his discomfort. Old injuries, I thought, perhaps from his days as an athlete.

“Contemplation of the end has its benefits,” he muttered. “It reminds us that life is short, what is important and what is not. It pushes us to improve our knowledge of how to live. This, by the way, is why Tolstoy ran from his deathbed. In a final doomed escape, he took his favourite books and caught a train. He died alone in the waiting room of Astapovo Station. He, of course, was a genius; but there is a certain beauty in not being especially gifted. Montaigne said that.”

I gave him all my cash, and bought him food on my credit card. When at last we parted, he stayed on board, so that as the train pulled away, his face grew smaller in the darkening glass.

In History

The Empire was built long before the Emperors. Imperial Rome added only one new province, that of Britain. Before this were four hundred years of torrid and radical Republicanism, teeming assembly-based and mass public decision-making. The expansionism of their armies was an expression of this dynamism.  It was the citizen soldiers of Republican Rome, meeting in their huge debating fora, electing their own generals, making law, allocating resources to massive engineering works, that took over the ‘known world’ – not the Emperors.

During those early centuries of Republicanism, plebians and patricians argued incessantly, marched, shouted, manipulated and gave fanatical support to their opposing and colour-coded chariot teams. This ongoing ‘conflict of the orders’ was surprisingly free of violence, but it was nevertheless an intense form of class war. Usually – drearily and throughout history – elites dominate. And they will gladly codify their domination in constitutional forms. The crucial moment in the empowerment of the plebs was 494 BCE. It was then that they first deployed a particular tactic of resistance, politically creative, sophisticated and effective: the entire plebian class of Rome simply walked out of the city and camped beyond its walls on a nearby hill. This mass exit forced powerful concessions from the patricians and a high water mark of constitutional reform that subsequently underpinned the dynamism and expansionism of the Republic.

The Secessio Plebis of 494 BCE exploited the numeric advantage of the plebs, but also their capacity to communicate and coordinate public actions. They achieved this through a complex network of interconnected mass meetings in which political, economic and military decisions were made in public. While we cannot hope, today, to maintain such an intensity of face-to-face interaction, the current state of our information revolution does allow the rapid coordination of mass withdrawal. We can, therefore, expect it to be used more systematically and with greater strategic focus. Certainly, when we inspect this ancient act of mass exit and the current state of the information revolution today, we can observe certain similarities of concern, circumstance and capacity.

The Internet now affords the opportunity for instant and overwhelming mass withdrawal. Such a degree of action coordination brings the numerical advantage of plebs, consumers and citizens to bear on political decision-making. This degree of concerted disapproval has already drawn on the long history of consumer boycotts and mass labour strikes. Power has moved from kings and tyrants to transnational corporations and unaccountable electoral dictatorships. As ever, we have no means of political expression; no way to challenge incumbent power and little apparent appetite for revolutionary change. Yet the specter of mass and instantaneous secession will always haunt.


There are always more serfs than masters, more privates than officers, more workers than capitalists. One of the many mysteries of human history is thus the chilling regularity with which the few have oppressed the many. Although remarked upon by almost every political thinker, the question of how elites are able to dominate the much larger numbers of their subordinates received its starkest articulation in the work of Étienne de La Boétie in 1553. A close friend of the essayist Michel de Montaigne, La Boétie died young and broke his friends heart. But behind him he left an extraordinary document. Entitled ‘Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’, it argued that elites could only oppress the more numerous populace when the people in some way colluded in their own domination. Their ‘servitude’ was thus in a sense voluntary; they came to dominate themselves. To recognise this is not to lessen elite responsibility for oppression, for their rapaciousness remains a prime mover of history. Nor should we blame the victim of that oppression. Yet La Boétie’s stark point cannot be avoided: there are, and always have been, more of us. Why, then, are we unable to avoid oppression?

The implication here is that there really is such a thing as ideological deception. It serves the interests of governing elites and it helps secure our compliance. This psychological element of oppression was first unpacked by Marx, who stressed the emancipatory power of becoming consciousness of class membership. To feel part of a collective and to have that membership be deeply embedded in one’s identity, this would make an agent to change history. It would construct a plural subject able to act together.

But it never got the chance. Failure prompted the critical theorists of the Frankfurt School to look for still deeper forms of collusion, reaching for developments in psychoanalysis to help them explain the failure of Marxism and the apparent triumph of Fascism. Subsequently, Foucault revealed some of the subtle mechanisms by which the internalisation of the oppressor occurs. All such accounts highlight the necessity, for oppression to be effective, of keeping people isolated, preventing them from sharing their experience and information with others and dividing them so they can be ruled. Above all, as La Boétie understood, oppression of the many by the few rests on preventing the many from acting together.

Panic in Rome

Elites always go too far. Eventually, accidentally, they mobilise those they oppress. Or their self-serving schemes fail and they leave power ‘lying in the streets.’ When citizens have managed to coordinate their actions, they have overturned the most powerful and horrific of tyrants. A telling example of elite failure that stimulated subordinates to successfully co-ordinate their action occurred in the ongoing ‘conflict of the orders’ in the early Roman Republic. Class war here took the form of a struggle between plebians and patricians. Because all citizens undertook military service, where they enjoyed membership of a variety of interconnected decision-making fora in the army, the plebs were able to exchange their collective outrage at patrician policies. As a result, in 494 BCE, the entire plebian class of Rome walked out of the city en masse to camp on a nearby hill. There, according to the Roman historian Titus Livy, ‘without any officer to direct them,’ they ‘stayed quietly’.

In Rome, however, there was ‘something like panic,’ and ‘everything came to a standstill.’ As the days passed, the patricians became increasingly incapacitated. Unable to conduct business, defend their property or resist the opportunism of neighboring cities, they at last consented to one of the great class-based political innovations of the ancient world – that of the Tribunate. The Tribunes of the People were elected by plebs, could not be patricians and had the power to veto any policy initiative that that was not in the best interest of the plebian class. In effect, the Tribunes were legally empowered to protect the plebs from the patricians.

With this protection enshrined in constitutional law, the plebs returned to the city. In fact, the patricians repeatedly reneged on this agreement, thereby forcing a series of further mass secessions. In his extraordinary ‘Discourses on Livy,’ Niccolò Machiavelli remarks on the real achievements of these mass exits, but he also highlights their evident symbolic power. The Secessio Plebis is nothing short of a rehearsal of popular unity and coordination, one in which the collective is physically present and visible, fully networked and free to exchange information. There is debate as to whether the secession of the plebs constitutes the first documented mass labour strike, or was actually a reflection of Rome’s reliance, at that time, on citizen militia. If the latter, an additional lesson to be drawn is that elites need the support of the army to remain in power. No matter. The Secessio Plebis shows that when superior numbers grasp their plural subjectivity and coordinate their actions, they are without doubt a formidable force. This exertion need not be violent. Mass exit can take the form of a withdrawal of compliance, a refusal to play and a demonstration of collective power. We need to perfect these tactics and use them.

Soon it will dawn. We will realise what has been done, what has been broken and wasted, and we will at last recover our outrage. In future, we can look forward to massive collective swarms of increasing desperation, beautiful in their failure, heroic in their invisibility. But it is too late. Our world ends and we argue about religion. Gene Orro was quite clear on this. We had our chance, we had the halcyon days and now there will be a correction, one in which the reified figments of our mind arc back solid to destroy us. The global risks are too advanced, and as elite domination enables them to abandon us completely, they will at last be free to live in fully digitized and controlled environments, genetically superior and with computing throughout their bodies, blinded by privilege, lacking humanity and history, free in their own minds to rot.

We are so sorry. Sleepwalking was our main contribution. My own life has been that of a battery chicken with a hole in the bottom where the meaning seeps out. The only people I talk to have been dead for hundreds of years. I have a mental disorder that prevents me from believing in things, and I often contemplate the fact that across history, more people have been killed – not for their beliefs – but for their inability to believe. It’s true that questioning causes problems, but it keeps us awake and raw in a way that seems appropriate in this place. We worry about the others, and rightly so. We know we can be cruel, endlessly fooling ourselves while we fall headlong.

But watch a child’s face when the red block is, astonishingly, placed atop the blue one! You will see how we fall in love with the world.