Ryszard Legutko – The Demon in Democracy

It is hard to imagine many serious scholars have read Ryszard Legutko and became convinced in the fallacy of liberal democracy. Most read it because it provides insights into a worldview that is difficult for them to comprehend. Kind of like reading Mein Kampf. There is value in taking the time to understand different viewpoints even when they are morally abhorrent. And while Legutko is no Hitler, many of his views are difficult for a Western audience to stomach. His attacks on homosexuality were unsurprising. But it was completely unexpected for him to reject laws designed to protect against spousal abuse as a form of government intrusion.

The title of his book is not meant as a challenge for democracy. He literally rejects liberalism and democracy. The book does not make a case for a new form of governance. Instead he offers a critique devoid of possible solutions. There is a nihilism in the pages of this work. Legutko is a Polish intellectual who grew up during the Communist era. But he never embraced Communism either. There is an implicit frustration that the rejection of Communism became an acceptance of liberal democracy not as a logical conclusion but rather as a necessity or a default. He does not feel there was much of a political choice for Poland. They were steered toward a political direction when they should have taken the moment to determine their own fate.

Legutko draws many similarities between the social fabric of Communism and Democracy. He believes their values are different but believes the outcomes remain the same. He sees a culture develop where the individual has little choice due to social influence. He sees an ideology within democratic society that mirrors the Communist era. Of course, Legutko is not an anarcho-libertarian. Instead, it seems he simply wants the culture to impose his own value system upon society. His evident prejudice against homosexuals and women indicates he wants to impose an authoritarian culture where they have little opportunity for self-expression.

But this book is not important for what he says so much as the challenge to formulate a response. On the surface, his argument is simply absurd. His arguments are so deep in hypocrisy it becomes difficult to take them seriously. He is deeply offended in the intolerance of his own intolerance. His experience does not give him cause to reflect on his own intolerance but gives him cause for greater righteousness.

Democracy is described as totalitarian because social institutions become subsumed within its law. The family, the church and the workplace become subject to laws established through the democratic process. There is a lot to unpack in this brief summarization. He is right to believe democratic governance places institutions under the rule of law. But this is not so much a feature of democracy as it is of liberalism. The rule of law requires the supremacy of the law. If the family or the church have a greater claim to authority, the rule of law is undermined.

He implies traditional institutions are undermined through their subjection to the law. Yet it is not the preservation of institutions he cares much about. Rather he is focused on the traditional norms and values which once defined these institutions. Yet he fails to consider how the evolution of these norms have strengthened the institutions he considers threatened. For example, marriage is under threat because the law interferes with conflicts previously resolved between the husband and wife. Indeed, resolution for Legutko requires a patriarchal system where the husband uses a marriage to impose his will on the relationship. The government, he believes, interferes in this patriarchal relationship when it establishes laws to protect against spousal abuse.

This limited view of marriage fails to recognize the potential for the norms and values of institutions to evolve. Marriage in the West has gradually become an egalitarian relationship where the husband and wife are equal partners. Legutko believes this undermines the institution but he fails to recognize the institution is not fundamentally transformed. Instead, it is just the social norms that define the nature of the relationship. Indeed, the egalitarian norms have strengthened the institutions of marriage and the family.

Legutko attacks democracy as an ideology of intolerance. But it is the intolerance of his intolerance that he finds unacceptable. He despises the ethos of inclusivity. His challenge to democracy is to include his intolerance into its culture. Indeed, this leads us to the edge of the democracy paradox. Self-governance requires inclusive governance. The entire population must be welcomed into the process of governance. Yet not everyone will accept the invitation.

jmk, carmel, indiana, democracyparadoxblog@gmail.com

5 thoughts on “Ryszard Legutko – The Demon in Democracy

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  1. There are some fundamental problems with this review. Or rather, it seems that the reviewer is simply not on the same page as Prof. Legutko. The reviewer evidently does not object to Communism’s methodology and jurisdictional claims, only its principles of justification.
    The reviewer equates “rule of law” to what normal people mean when they say, “totalitarianism,” i.e., the subjugation of all subsidiary communal institutions to the ethos of the state—in this case, egalitarian inclusivity. Rule of law actually simply means subjecting individual instances of dispute to pre-established canons and norms, i.e., to exclude arbitrary case-by-case decisions. It does not mean that all facets of human life are to bow down to the ethos prescribed by the state. The rule of law may require supremacy of the law, but it does not require its universal competence over all matters. What Legutko objects to, is totalitarianism, not the rule of law.
    Moreover, if tolerance means tolerance shown only for the tolerant, then it is methodologically no different than its alternatives and collapses in upon itself in a maelstrom of incoherence as well as hypocrisy. And the idea that self-governance requires inclusive governance is wholly unsupported and unsupportable, and is simply a brazen declaration.

    1. I do disagree with Legutko and much of his work. He does not argue just that he has a right to express contrarian ideas or thoughts. He argues the law has overstepped into spheres like the family. He actually argues against many domestic violence laws, because they interfere in the family sphere. My argument is the rule of law means the law as an institution overrides the norms of other institutions. For example, it guarantees rights to children even when their parents do not acknowledge those rights. A big difference in our opinions is you are using the state and the law almost interchangeably. They are not inextricably linked. The key distinction of totalitarianism was the supremacy of the state over the law. Democracy depends on the supremacy of the law over the state. Law, as an institution, actually limits the bounds of the state. Legutko does not capture this nuance. It’s a large part of the reason why he mischaracterizes the concept of totalitarianism.

      1. Interesting. I do not think that there is disagreement here, as much as there exist different meanings and definitions operating. Using what I think is your definition, I suppose one would then characterize instances of when the “Law” oversteps in matters of parental authority, not really exercises of the Law at all, but simply exercises of state power. What is the Law, becomes the pertinent question obviously.
        This is the more interesting area. What is the Law, or, more importantly, what creates it (or as I would prefer, finds and recognizes it) and enforces it, if not a state? Indeed, I would tend to define “state” in part, as that mechanism which exists to recognize and enforce the Law. Where the mechanism acts contrary or oversteps, it is to that extent arbitrary or rogue.
        I think Legutko’s point is that, the Soviet Union acted to reconstruct institutions (eg., the family), and this was “illegal” (applying your definition of Law); now, some of liberal democracies are doing some of the same things, and are similarly acting “illegally,” without anyone noticing the parallel.

      2. I am definitely playing with traditional definitions. And I will admit Legutko has come under fire for types of speech in Europe that would have been protected in the United States. As an American, I take for granted an expansive sense of free expression. And I do sympathize with his opposition to communism and the Soviet State. I still disagree with key points in his book, but I respected his work enough to include it in my 100 books on democracy list.

        Regarding the definition of the law, this is a point the early social contract theorists thought about. Hobbes assumes the state is necessary to make the law so the sovereign becomes exempt from it. Locke begins to conceive of a law where even kings must obey. I explore a lot of these issues throughout my blog and podcast.

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