BOOKS : A democracy of his own

ON THE EVE OF THE MILLENNIUM by Conor Cruise O'Brien Simon & Schuster pounds 7.99
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The Independent Culture
BASED on lectures that Connor Cruise O'Brien delivered on Canadian radio, this book is a call to arms in defence of the Enlightenment. "The condition of the Enlightenment tradition," O'Brien fears, "may prove terminal within, say, the first quarter of the next millennium"; with it may disappear "democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law". The coming millennium, he believes, should be the occasion "for rational apprehension" to preserve the values of the Englightenment "before it is too late".

The degradation of Enlightenment ideals is certainly an important issue to address. O'Brien's tone, however, is less that of an advocate of Enlightenment reason than of a millenarian preacher prophesying the end of the world. He is obsessed by the vision of Catholics and Muslims uniting to create an "Alliance for the Repeal of the Enlightenment": "the heirs of the crusades and the heirs of the jihad uniting for a final war against the godless". He even raises the possibility that "the Pope, in the year 2000, [might] announce his acceptance of the Koran and summon the faithful, through the papal muezzin,to join him in prayer at the mosque of St Peter".

O'Brien foresees the collapse of the British monarchy, which will "endanger democracy in the West". He worries, too, that pornography will "delegitimise" Western societies and lead to "revolution". And if all this were not enough, "the recently observed behaviour of certain comets" suggests to O'Brien that the Earth itself may not survive for too much longer.

More troublesome than the tone of the book, however, is the sentiment it expresses. O'Brien has been, at best, an ambivalent friend of the Enlightenment, as his antipathy to the French Revolution and his advocacy of Edmund Burke has long revealed. For O'Brien the Enlightenment belongs solely to the elite. "The understanding of the Enlightenment tradition and commitment to it," he writes, "are necessarily confined to elites." Why? Because the masses are moved by "emotion" while the "intellectual elite" alone is governed by "reason" (though O'Brien's book itself might be sufficient evidence to dispel that idea).

History tells a different tale. Radical mass movements have often defended Enlightenment ideals, even as the elite have sought to suborn them. While O'Brien's hero Burke defended slavery, for instance, believing that "the cause of humanity would be far more benefitted by the continuance of the trade and servitude", the London Coresponding Society, formed by artisans and workers, declared that "the Rights of Man are not confined to this small island but are extended to the whole human race, black or white, high or low, rich or poor."

This willingness to defend the Rights of Man was a motif of working-class movements through the 19th century. Middle- class liberals, on the other hand, increasingly abandoned their commitment to Enlightenment principles, preferring, with Burke, order to liberty. As Walter Bagehot put it in the wake of the 1848 Revolutions, "The first duty of society is the preservation of society", and for that "we must sacrifice everything", including "Parliament, liberty, leading articles, essays, eloquence".

O'Brien stands in that tradition of intellectuals who would like to be liberal but fear the consequences. The trouble with democracy, he writes, is that it forces politicians to be accountable to the public. And since the public at large is moved not by reason but by emotion, so democracy inevitably undermines itself. Democracy, for O'Brien, would be wonderful as long as it was the property of the few.

O'Brien's real fear, like Burke's and Bagehot's, is not the degradation of the Enlightenment tradition but the collapse of social order. He bemoans the fact that during the 20th century we have "squandered" the "intangible resources" necessary for the maintenance of such order. These include "a sense of awe", "the general assumption of deference to one's social superiors" and the maintenance of a "monarch at the apex of the social pyramid".

Not many Enlightenment (or enlightened) values there. What O'Brien's polemic suggests is that the real foes of the Enlightenment may not be the masses (or the mullahs) but the elites who would undermine democracy, in the name of democracy, the better to preserve their own privileges.