By Shany Mor
We find it difficult to perceive how much was at stake in this early shift from the republic to the democratic form of government because we commonly equate and confound majority rule with majority decision. The latter, however, is a technical device, likely to be adopted almost automatically in all types of deliberative councils and assemblies, whether these are the whole electorate or a town-hall meeting or small councils of chosen advisers to the respective rulers. In other words, the principle of majority is inherent in the very process of decision-making and thus is present in all forms of government, including despotism, with the possible exception only of tyranny. Only where the majority, after the decision has been taken, proceeds to liquidate politically, and in extreme cases physically, the opposing minority does the technical device of majority decision degenerate into majority rule. — Hannah Arendt
What is Hannah Arendt trying to convey in this distinction between majority decision and majority rule? Both terms are referred to in value-laden language, but rather than being held in contrast, with one clearly bad and one clearly good, neither concept emerges in a very positive light. And even this isn’t balanced. Majority decision is treated as something “technical,” tepidly “inherent” to a decision process, which has its place some of the time, but shouldn’t be taken as evidence of democracy or anything else for that matter. A reader might expect, then, that the contrast to majority rule would be one where a technical process is contrasted to a social arrangement.
But that is not where the next sentence goes at all. Majority rule, quite simply, is the elimination of the minority. Not the culmination of one decision process or another, not the cumulation of several decision processes, not even a political arrangement orthogonal to majority decision, but the degeneration of majority decision.
Degeneration is a particularly evocative term in political theory. It recalls the idea of Polybian anacyclosis. Governments, in classical political thought, can take multiple forms, depending on whether it is one, or few, or many who rule. The benign forms of this are respectively, monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. But each of these regime types can degenerate into less desirable forms.
The names and exact number of stages in the cycle differ depending on which thinker we read and which translation we consult. Machiavelli speaks of “Principality, Aristocracy, and Democracy.” For both Aristotle and Plato, “democracy” was actually the name of the degenerate form. Plato’s cycle had five parts, while Aristotle’s six-part cycle was more or less what Polybius drew on for his ideas of mixed government. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, monarchy degenerates into tyranny; aristocracy degenerates into oligarchy; “timocracy” degenerates into democracy.
Arendt’s degeneration, however, is different. She doesn’t describe one regime type degenerating into another. The degeneration isn’t connecting two species of the same genus of concepts at all. A method in this case is degenerating into regime. Is this a necessary progression? What steps are missing?
Majority decision, Arendt’s “technical device,” can be defended or criticized based on the circumstances of credentialing the votes. A group of five friends can’t agree on a restaurant, but three prefer sushi and two prefer tacos — majority decision means rice will be coming with wasabi tonight, rather than with beans and salsa. That might seem appropriate for some friends, but meaningless if one member of the group, say, is allergic to seafood.
What if they are five partners in a small business, and three prefer one new advertising slogan and two prefer another? Maybe majority decision makes sense if all five own equal shares, but one of the five has a 40% share and each of the others has 15%, maybe we’d think of it differently. The same is true for an international body assigning one vote to each member state government, regardless of population (or GDP or whatever other metric). Makes sense as a congress of governments, but not so much as a body for enacting the will of the people (not peoples) putatively represented.
So is majority decision a promise of democracy for Arendt? Absolutely not, as it can co-exist with pretty much any form of government except perhaps absolute rule by one person. What then of majority rule? Arendt’s answer to this question is equally negative. If majority rule, grounded in a set of legitimate majority decisions, leads to the domination (or worse) of the minority, then it is a degenerate form of majority decision, even worse than the original.
The problem here isn’t the transition from decision to rule so much as it is Arendt’s reticence and hesitation regarding majorities. It’s not hard to see where she might have picked that up. And at a time when constitutional reforms in Hungary, Turkey, and Poland are allowing majority decisions to entrench an all too familiar form of majority rule, we’d be wise to keep the distinction in mind.
Engaging in repeated votes — and having the experience of losing and coming back — is certainly a crucial habit for democracy, but it alone doesn’t promise anything. Because democracy is greater than just a procedure; it is a social a reality and, even more than that, a habit. Its benefit isn’t in the way it resolves conflicts (by voting, however directly or indirectly), but in how it sustains them, regulates them, and manages them.