The power of names

Is this form of democracy sufficient to ensure human rights? The historical verdict is no. In fact, such abuses can be hidden by maintaining the form of democracy while ridding that form of its substance. Photo courtesy of @marcooriolesi on

Is this form of democracy sufficient to ensure human rights? The historical verdict is no. In fact, such abuses can be hidden by maintaining the form of democracy while ridding that form of its substance. In Confucian thought, there is a concept of the rectification of names. This doctrine states that names and deeds must align. To Confucius, this would lead to social disorder and the warring states period. In the Legalist Philosopher Han Fei’s work, this was especially important as a means to avoid coups and flatterers by ensuring that deeds and promises matched, punishing any incongruities. While Han Fei was concerned with the preservation of autocratic rulers, the same correspondence is vital to the health of modern democracies. For example, in the Palestinian Authority, Israel, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, the United States of America, Myammar, Russia and nineteenth century France, we find that majoritarian democracy has often given way to less liberal democracy which maintains only de jure liberal democracy, while abrogating such rights in practice and the substance of democracy.

In Louis Napoleon Bonaparte III’s France, the press was nominally free, although as Joly points out, he used implied threats to the press and “states of emergency” to muzzle free speech. Such soft muzzling of the press is one of the reasons Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu is going to trial this year. One of the charges is that he engaged in quid pro quo arrangements with newspaper magnates Sheldon Adelson and Shaul Elovitch. In order to get Elovitch to drop embarrassing stories about the Netanyahus, Netanyahu asked Adelson to limit runs of Israel Hayom. Similarly, he tied political support for Elovitch’s other business dealings to favorable coverage in Elovitch’s Yedidot Ahronot. Another Israeli problem is that constant elections are for the purposes of governing, identical to an absence of elections. Since there is never a true government, either the bureaucracy or a transitional government is in power during the incessant elections. This applies to any country, including Lebanon which still lacks a government since the Beirut explosion and Italy in the 70s, with its governments that only lasted 13 months on average. The fact that permanent elections undermine democracy is the key point Orwell meant when he had his character Emanuel Goldstein state that: “A peace that was truly permanent would be the same as a permanent war. This — although the vast majority of Party members understand it only in a shallower sense  — is the inner meaning of the Party slogan: WAR IS PEACE.”  The point Orwell was making is that for the purposes of the party’s objectives, “war” need not correspond to an actual war, merely a reported war.  

So too with democracy, as Robert Reich has pointed out, we now live in an era of permanent elections where the results of an election are thrown into doubt, hindering governance. This is seen in California with the incessant attempts to recall Gavin Newsom and in New York with Andrew Cuomo. Unfortunately for world democracy, these tricks of purely nominal democracy are known to be stable and acceptable to the public when it arises. For as has been known since at least Maurice Joly, author of “Dialogues aux infers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu,” who cites Octavian Caesar known as Augustus that many critics will be satisfied if only the forms of majoritarian democracy are maintained, while the substance of those rights and freedoms is denied. Napoleon Bonaparte, Oliver Cromwell and Augustus Caesar demonstrated you can attain ultimate power as long as you do not explicitly call yourself a king.

One could argue that a separation of powers would suffice to prevent the rise of autocracy from democracies. However, as Trump has shown, when that independence is purely nominal, it fails to curb the decay of democracy. As Joly notes, this is how the Roman Republic transitioned to the Empire. Admittedly, in light of Mr. Zellin’s comments, comparing the slide of democracies in the twenty-first century to the chaos of first century Rome or 18 Brumaire France, where only nominal freedom remained is probably excessive. However, remembering the power of words is always essential. Failure to do so leads to a system where freedom is only nominal. 

Thumbnail image courtesy of @isai21 on

Leave a Reply