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AS/POLS 2900.6A
  Perspectives on Politics

March 17 – The Fear of Conformity and Mill’s Dilemma

We saw last time that Mill’s dissatisfaction with earlier utilitarianism led him to attempt a reform of utilitarianism that recognized the existence of higher and lower pleasures. This turned out to mean that his liberalism also turned out to be different from earlier liberalism. He had a different conception of human nature, one that saw individuals not as selfish maximizers of power and consumption, but developers and enjoyers of a whole range of capacities and abilities (which would include rational understanding, moral judgement and action, aesthetic creation and contemplation, love, religious experience, and so on…) But this also meant that, unlike earlier liberalism, Mill was not content to simply accept  the present type of happiness that most people were used to as the true or final type; in other words, that individuals were not always the best judges of their own interests.

Therefore politics and political power were also not seen as earlier liberalism and liberal-democracy had seen them, i.e. as simply a necessary evil, against which, above all, individuals had to be protected. This view came to be matched by another emphasis – also inherited from the pre-liberal tradition (like the distinction between higher and lower pleasures). For Mill politics and political power could become – indeed had to become – an educating force.

Now, as I said before, Mill’s double effort, to bring together liberalism and democracy, and to reform liberalism, were not simply the effect of an intellectual dissatisfaction with early utilitarianism. They also had to do with Mill’s perception of the unfolding social situation. That situation was marked above all by two things. First there was, as Mill saw it,  the obvious and blatant misery and injustice inflicted by capitalist industrialization on the working class. This was by Mill’s time (let’s say about 1850) a concern of sensitive souls of all political persuasions. Mill himself argued that the current position of the lower classes was hardly better than slavery, and that it could and must be improved. He often argued that this improvement was their own responsibility and that they would not improve their lot until they stopped having so many babies and stopped squandering their money and health on things like alcohol… But at the same time he was able to see that there could be no general improvement without a more equitable distribution of wealth and economic power. The system of distribution that existed was in his eyes almost the opposite of equitable, i.e. there existed under contemporary capitalism a vast disproportion between reward and effort.

The second aspect of the situation to which Mill was very sensitive was not unrelated to the increasingly obvious misery of the lower classes. This was the growing independence and initiative of lower-class political movements opposed to liberalism and often anti-capitalist, pressing for things like universal suffrage as well as important limitations on the power of private enterprise (radical measures like a guaranteed minimum wage, legal limits on child labour, etc…) It was especially the lower class movements (trade unions, Chartists, utopian socialists, radical democrats…) that were now appealing to the constituency that liberals had long thought of as their natural (but no longer dependable) allies against the older land-based, aristocratic elites.

Mill recognized that these dangerous conditions called for three things: first, new reforms, economic as well as political. The state would have to step in to a greater extent than it had under the “night watchman” version of earlier liberalism. Second, there would have to be a new relation forged between liberals and the rapidly organizing lower classes. And third, a new justification of liberalism was needed that would be persuasive to the lower classes and would divert them from a disastrous embrace of socialism.

Now, you might expect that inasmuch as Mill valued individual development through the exertion of individual capacities, and because he emphasized freedom, spontaneity, experimentation and the capacity of all individuals to develop their reason – you might have expected him to propose, as part of the reforms he saw as needed, a very strong version of democracy. As we shall see, down the road a bit, he did not. He does, however, substantially alter the liberal understanding of the nature and function of democracy.

C.B. Macpherson has proposed a very useful distinction between two types (or versions) of democracy. One is called “protective” democracy. This model of democracy was worked out by earlier utilitarianism (by Bentham and James Mill). In this earlier version of liberal-democracy humans are still simply seen as insatiable consumers of utilities and the good society is still simply that which can and will maximize commodity production, and democracy is simply a protective device for such consumers against each other and against their government. But for J.S. Mill democracy has an essentially developmental function. Besides being at some indefinite future time a good in itself, it would be an important present means for educating people towards a knowledge of the higher pleasures of autonomous self-development.

Yet, for Mill, the fact of the matter is that for now, and on into the indefinite future, most people – among the wealthy as well as among the lower classes – still do believe and act according to the model of earlier utilitarianism. The fact of the matter is also that the higher pleasures depend upon a high degree of leisure and therefore upon a high degree of productivity and efficiency. And these things, productivity and efficiency, are for Mill inseparable from the continued expansion of capitalist competition in a free market.

Thus John Stuart Mill gets caught, as does all subsequent reform liberalism (and much of social democracy) in one way or another, between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand, the development of human capacities (for all) ought to be maximized; and if greater participation in directing the common affairs means greater power for the lower classes, then they should have such greater power. Yet, on the other hand, maximum economic productivity, even if it is not sufficient for (and might even get in the way of) the greatest happiness (in a quantitative and qualitative sense) of the greatest number, does remain necessary.  John Stuart Mill’s liberalism therefore comes to include an uneasy compromise and permanent tension (some would say fundamental contradiction) between two imperatives: first, the imperative to maximize productivity, which means that anything potentially dangerous to productivity is suspect; and second, the imperative to develop human capacities towards the higher pleasures – an imperative that is not identical to, not the same as, and may even come into conflict with the first imperative to maximize productivity.

This tension or conflict between these two imperatives is the first obstacle in Mill’s way to the proposing of a strong version of democracy. And it amounts to saying that the lower classes are not to be trusted, or are no longer to be trusted, or are not yet to be trusted to use their far greater numbers to protect and promote capitalist economic development. They are far more likely to use the power they can gain in a strong democracy to promote their less enlightened short term interests at the expense of the promotion of the first imperative, as well as the second.

Mill goes beyond classical liberalism and early liberal-democracy in proposing that political participation is one of the most important enlightening or developing practices or institutions possible. The end he has in mind – “the highest and most harmonious development of man’s [sic] powers” – is a quite different, one could say qualitatively different end than the ends promoted by previous liberalism, and it resonates with echoes from the whole pre-liberal and non-liberal tradition from Aristotle on up… For Aristotle, the highest development of practical human excellence could only be achieved by the citizen who rules and is rule by others as an equal. For Rousseau, the highest development of freedom must mean not the freedom to be left alone simply to do as wish or whim dictates, but the freedom to participate equally in the making of the laws that themselves treat all individuals as equals. Through Mill, this kind of teleological thinking about the relation between political society and the individual enters into liberalism for the first time. But it enters through the back door, i.e. as the long-run individual self-interest in the higher pleasures.

For Mill it is therefore democratic political participation that will supply a means for individuals to educate and elevate themselves. Through it, they will rise above the extremely limited view of self-interest grasped by earlier utilitarianism. The errors of early utilitarianism about human happiness were therefore connected with its errors about the meaning of political life, its promotion of only a protective function for democracy.

According to Mill, people should manage as many as possible of their joint concerns by voluntary cooperation. And as he got older, the importance of cooperation became even more crucial for Mill. He begins to wish for a transformation of the economy from one of strictly private ownership and management to one in which economic ventures are cooperatively owned and managed. At times he even calls himself a “qualified socialist”. Yet even at these later stages in his own development, Mill conceives of these firms as still competing with each other, still purchasing the labour-power of their own members as a commodity like any other. Moreover, Mill thinks that such cooperative enterprises will have the educative function of bringing the working class into closer contact with its betters and thus a beneficial influence of the middle class will be exerted upon the less enlightened lower class mentality.

But Mill’s later drift in the direction of a qualified “socialism” is perhaps a digression. So, the first thing that prevents Mill from entertaining seriously the idea of a strong democracy is a fear of what he called “class legislation”. That is, he is afraid of a newly enfranchised lower class using the power of democracy to strike at the heart of the first imperative that now flows from the Greatest Happiness Principle, the imperative of unimpeded economic growth, which he still holds to even though it may no longer be strictly conceived in the quantitative and economistic terms of earlier utilitarianism.  In this he remains close to earlier liberalism, which tended to assume that the lower classes would always follow its lead, or that it must be prevented from holding the power that its numbers would require under a perfectly democratic and egalitarian system of representation.

But there is a second obstacle to a strong democracy as well. Mill has had to learn, unlike previous liberal-democrats, that the working class is not necessarily to be relied upon to follow the lead of the middle class in economic matters. But what Mill sees in this new unpredictability is not the fact that the working class might have quite different, even opposed, but still rational interests all of its own. What he sees in it instead is, in his terms, “the ignorance, selfishness and brutality of the mass”.

This is something quite new, at least to English speaking liberalism, this new fear of the masses together with an association of the spread of a democratic and egalitarian society with the spread of a dull conformism and mediocrity. Mill had been deeply impressed by Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a massive comparative study (still much pored over today) of the comparative development of democratic culture and politics in France and the United States. De Tocqueville had argued that the model of democracy that France represented, partly because it had inherited a long tradition of strong centralization of power from the old regime, but partly following from the very nature of social equality itself – that French democracy had produced an atomized society in which helpless individuals confronted not only the tyranny of a concentrated state power, but had also assimilated a tyranny over the mind and spirit enforced by a public opinion ruled by its lowest common denominator.

Although De Tocqueville saw similar tendencies at work in the U.S., he thought these were partly offset by older and stronger traditions of local self-help through participatory institutions, such as the famous New England “town meeting” and the jury system, as well as the decentralization of many governmental functions, compared to France, and their being run by elected officials. (In the United States many more elections are held for minor public service posts, from District Attorneys to judges to dogcatchers than in Canada or England). De Tocqueville’s great fear was that these various “liberal” institutions, although deeply rooted in the American past and in its ongoing frontier experience, might not in the long run be enough to prevent the insidious growth of a “tyranny of the majority” or a “democratic despotism”. Mill was extremely receptive to this idea of the danger of a tyranny of the majority and, like De Tocqueville, thought of it as a possibility deeply, even inextricably rooted in modern society itself, with its insistence on the social equality and independence of all individuals. 

One of the things at work in Mill’s fear of a tyranny of the majority is his fear of the “class legislation” just mentioned, which would interfere with the operations of capitalist private property. The other element is his fear that the great mass of the ignorant and selfish, even without political power, but all the more with it, would undo whatever spirit of individual freedom and creativity the modern world had brought about. As the political and cultural power of the common run of the unenlightened, selfish and ignorant grew, they would impose their own dull, narrow and puritanical perspective on society as a whole.

So here is Mill’s dilemma, and it is indeed a complex one, even in rough outline:

On the one hand, the actual progress of capitalist society had led to a situation in which it was increasingly obvious that the greatest happiness of the greatest number could not simply be equated any more with the imperative of maximizing productivity; and,

Earlier liberalism had been wrong to reduce the political sphere to the mere protection of the private rights of individuals to infinitely accumulate economic power through peaceful competition; and

Earlier liberalism had also been in error to see in human nature simply a mechanism for the rational maximization of selfish appetites instead of seeing in it something that could develop into a more harmonious appreciation and valuation of the higher pleasures – pleasures that naturally sought outlets in activities and relations that were not inherently competitive but cooperative; and

Enhanced participation on the part of those previously banned from political life was therefore essential to their own development, i.e. to the maximization of their freedom to develop all of their capacities; moreover,

The vast majority were clearly beginning to take matters into their own hands, and there was no way to return them to passivity and quiescence (this was, of course, before mass consumption and television).

All this argued in favour of democracy.


On the other hand, an increase in democracy seemed to mean that power would be put into the hands of those social forces whose rule would mean the tyranny of conformist public opinion; and,

This would mean the undoing of the end or goal that justified the idea of democracy in the first place, i.e. the maximization of the development of individual capacities, “the highest and most harmonious development of human powers”; also,

An increase in democracy would likely mean an interruption in, if not a collapse of the great engine of prosperity that was capitalist industrialization.

All this argued in favour of the restriction or tempering or even the abandonment of democracy.

I will want to present Mill’s response to this dilemma in two parts, the first corresponding to his appeal in On Liberty for a maximum of individual freedom, but on utilitarian grounds, i.e. his justification of individual freedom in terms of its role in promoting the greatest happiness of the greatest number . This will also mean that we have to take a closer look at just what Mill means by individuality. The second part of his response is in his proposals for representative government. We will then be in a better position to appreciate and evaluate Mill’s achievements and limitations, along with those of reform liberalism in general.

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