Maurice Joly and the Theory of Counterfeit Democracy
Are you living in a democratic simulation?
I shall count the number of newspapers that represent what you call the ‘opposition.’ If there are ten in this category, I shall have twenty pro-government. If twenty, I shall have forty. If forty, eighty. …However, the public at large must not suspect this tactic or the scheme would miscarry and public opinion would forsake those that openly defend my policies.
The year 1848, Year of Revolution, saw the birth of the democratic Western world. Not completely, not everywhere, not all at once, and not without some further shedding of blood in the decades that followed. But from this point forward a sort of dimensional shift was achieved. The peoples of the West, by force of a stunning, pan-Western uprising, had suddenly moved themselves, as if through Alice’s looking glass, into a different world.
In this new world politics had a different grammar. Everything became inverted. The State began to express the values of what has been called WEIRD morality: it was now in the service, the State officially (and increasingly loudly) claimed, of every citizen, recognized as a sacred individual. What? Yes, the bureaucrats and politicians began saying that!
And because they did, because of this new grammar, a process of institutional and legal reform, one meant to express an increasingly liberal politics, became inescapable. It was thus in 1848 that the modern Western world as we’ve come to know it really began taking shape.
But how long would this last?
A few years after 1848, Maurice Joly, a committed revolutionary democrat and political theorist, expressed the view that democracy would be short lived. A simulacrum of democracy would persist for some time. Sure. But democracy, genuine democracy, no. That would be almost instantly (and silently) destroyed.
Why so pessimistic?
Joly believed that a basic design defect plagued the institutional organization—the structure—of modern democracy. That structural defect was this: the executive had been allowed to create a secret service. The existence of this monster, argued Joly, would allow antidemocratic power elites, working clandestinely in the shadows, to corrupt and gut the very foundation of democracy even as they pretended in public to honor and defend it.
The pretending was quite an important process, in Joly’s view, as it would convince the citizens that the new order was safe, thus keeping further revolutionary stirrings at bay even as the power elite extended their clandestine clutches in and through and around the system. With their pious promises and protestations, expressed always in the most orthodox liberal grammar, the bosses would lull us to sleep, and then, employing our own meaning system, now thoroughly corrupted, they’d whisper in our dreams.
They would manage our reality.
In this simulation of democracy, the menu of choices would be populated by political parties, newspapers, and civic organizations that would seemingly compete with each other in a free market, yet they would all be run by spies, answering to the same boss.
In thrall to the convincing appearance of a participatory democracy, people would invest themselves in choosing what to read and who to vote for, yet every choice in the menu would in reality have been pre-selected and controlled from the center, and every election would return to power, every time, the same cabal.
To manage reality is to manage the past
Maurice Joly was the first great theorist of reality management. He was therefore concerned with the management of the past. Because that’s what reality is.
Everything we put into ‘reality’ is a claim we make about something that happened already (even if a second ago). Reality is the past. And that’s the whole political game. For whatever it is you think happened, and whatever you think didn’t, will decisively influence your behavior. George Orwell, that other great theorist of reality management, said it with inimitable poetic economy: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.”
Or, as the old saying goes, “It is the victors who write history.” And they go on winning, Joly might add, because they write our history.
But how is this accomplished? How—in operational terms—can a power elite do this in a democracy?
One controls with music, not with hammers, lest the entire scheme become obvious to the citizens. Censorship and political violence must be used sparingly, and subtly, and only when strictly necessary. The citizens must believe they are in a democracy. A meaning canal is thus constructed via the management of the past—of reality—to constrain and contain the imagination; then, within that canal, a turbulence of individual ‘choices’ is allowed to churn ‘freely.’ (Propose any theory you like but remember that conspiracy theories are ridiculous, crazy, wrong, and dumb.)
If reality is managed with sufficient skill, according to Joly, the people will never be the wiser—not, that is, until that day, which surely will come, when the bosses make an effort to transition the citizens from this counterfeit of democracy—a sloppy totalitarianism—into the real thing: frank totalitarianism. (But on that day it may be too late…)
This was a nightmare vision.
Possessed by this nightmare, Joly felt urgently compelled to share it—to warn others how easily the democratic system might be captured by its enemies. He thus explained in detail the cunning devices that antidemocratic power elites would surely use if only they were given a secret service. He meant for us to recognize these devices at work, that we could wake up in time, before it was too late, and plug this tremendous hole in the institutional design of Western democracy.
But for any such warning to have its desired effect, Joly needed to communicate with the common citizens of the West. His work thus needed to be lively: easy to read and understand.
Joly tried to solve this problem by imagining a spirited dialogue between two intellectual giants. He called his book:
The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, or the Politics of Machiavelli in the Nineteenth Century
This book remains mostly unknown, despite having played an enormous role in twentieth century events (see here). Within the small group of scholars who do know Joly, however, he is considered one of the sharpest political theorists ever: Orwell before Orwell. And perhaps sharper even than Orwell.
Here is a quick summary of Joly’s main thrust.
In one corner he had a fictional Baron de Montesquieu, that great figure of the Enlightenment, whose constitutional ideas became fundamental to the liberals behind the French Revolution and to liberals ever since. In the other corner he had a fictional Niccolo Machiavelli, the great political theorist of the 15th century, whom our collective memory has represented as a cold-blooded and power-hungry strategist.
These two would debate whether modern democracy could survive. Montesquieu would defend democracy as a self-correcting homeostatic system that—thanks to its functional, institutional design—always comes back, after perturbations, to an equilibrium of freedom. Machiavelli would argue that any such equilibrium is in fact impossibly fragile, and quite vulnerable to the schemes of false democrats who pretend to play the game only to destroy it.
The debate begins when, bored in Hell while they await the Final Judgment, the two protagonists agree on just this challenge to pass the time.
Times have changed, declares Montesquieu: the separation of powers into separate and competing institutions creates checks and balances to lock these powers in a tense equipoise that impedes any return to despotism. Machiavelli, never missing an opportunity to poke fun at Montesquieu’s innocence, explains, to the contrary, how, if only a secret service is granted, modern democracy can be clandestinely gutted while buffing always the shiny facade of liberty. Yes, the citizens can be conned insensibly by stages until—quite like the proverbial frog in the pot—they find themselves cooked: re-enslaved.
Joly’s Machiavelli dominates the book just as the typeface for his name dominates the cover of the original publication. His broad strategic vision is compelling, and his exposition of both grand strategy and low-level tactics for undermining democracy while keeping its outward forms is rich in detail, terrifying in its sagacity, and fully worthy of the immoral conniver that, in our memory, Machiavelli has (unfairly) become.
Whatever your model of the world, if you care about strengthening the institutional ‘immune system’ of modern democracy against the cleverest—and therefore deadliest—of attacks, it makes sense to read Joly.
Let us, then, get to know him.
With the pleasantries done, as the intellectual joust really begins, Machiavelli points out that a leader may be democratically elected, yet he may be, in his heart, a covert despot.
Montesquieu is in complete agreement. Indeed, as is famous, it was precisely to account for such possibilities that the good baron imagined the idea of well-articulated and mutually balanced democratic institutions to constrain and thwart attempts by any one center of power to become the autocrat.
Ah…, yes. But grant me only a secret service, counters Machiavelli, and all those delicately balanced institutions will be for naught. For a secret service, accountable to no one, allows the would-be despot to corrupt them all, and thus radically to contradict, behind the scenes, the broad-grinned and back-slapping bonhomie of democratic appearances he so assiduously keeps. He’ll corrupt everything out of sight whilst performing, in the public square, the grand theater of democracy.
The entire question of whether democratic society can survive, then, reduces for Joly to one all powerful question of institutional design: Does the ruler possess a secret service?
Which is not to say that Joly neglected the specific or ‘operational’ questions concerning how, in detail, this powerful institutional tool would be employed. Neither did he neglect the psychological context that would make such tactics effective. But I shall not give a complete catalogue here. I am pursuing a very specific quarry, as you’ll see below.
The clever Prince—as Machiavelli invariably calls the secretly antidemocratic though duly elected leader—will of course tread carefully within the new political grammar of post-revolutionary liberal democracy. He’ll never launch a frontal attack on its values and expectations, because that sort of thing would risk a new revolution. “I destroy nothing. I modify and innovate,” he intones, “for it is always dangerous to violate popular sentiments.” The democratic Prince thus becomes, in fact, the biggest and most dramatic public defender of democracy and liberty, to which he extravagantly commits himself by public speech and official slogan.
As for institutions, “I don’t need to create and reorganize everything. I find in existing institutions a great many of the instruments of my power.”
And even as the democratic show performs in public, the Prince’s secret agents collect, in the shadows, information on the citizens, gauging the extent and strength of the genuine opposition to his rule.
This opposition must never know its own strength or find a clear direction. To that end, the ruler will flood and surround it with fake opposition, led by his own secret agents. Meanwhile, other agents will infiltrate and lead, or else corrupt, the leaders of the genuine opposition, whether it be civil society movements, underground revolutionaries, or political parties.
All such agents will agitate against the government, confirming by their apparent hatred, and by the regime’s official tolerance of this hatred, the ruler’s commitment to liberty. But all this agitation will in fact benefit the leader. It will seem as though he maturely bows to the policy demands of his opponents via Salomonic compromises, when in fact he meant to implement those policies all along.
The free press
Joly’s Montesquieu is repeatedly aghast at the diabolical genius of Machiavelli’s proposals. But he has an ace up his sleeve: the free press. None of the Prince’s machinations will really be possible, says Montesquieu. And why not? Because the free press, declares Montesquieu, waxing lyrical,
“prevents the exercise of arbitrary power. It forces the depositories of public authority to govern constitutionally. It obliges them to be honest, restrained and respectful of constitutional practices in relations among themselves and of others. Finally, to make a long story short, it gives to anyone who is oppressed the means to voice one’s grievances and be heard.”
The free press will investigate and expose the Prince’s machinations, says Montesquieu, and this will constrain the Prince to behave.
Machiavelli is in strong agreement with Montesquieu on one question: the press is the key strategic asset. “Indeed,” he says to Montesquieu, “you have put your finger on the most delicate part of my task.” Yet the press, too, can be tamed, says Machiavelli.
Maquiavelli: … my scheme envisions neutralizing the press by the press itself. [Since] journalism wields such great power, do you know what my government will do? It will become like them. It will be journalism incarnate.
Machiavelli means simply this: any recalcitrant independent newspapers whose editors cannot be secretly corrupted or cowed will be flanked and overwhelmed by his own secret agents, who will set up a vast proliferation of newspapers of all kinds, ‘pro,’ ‘neutral,’ and ‘anti-government,’ of every conceivable hue and ideology.
Maquiavelli: I shall count the number of newspapers that represent what you call the ‘opposition.’ If there are ten in this category, I shall have twenty pro-government. If twenty, I shall have forty. If forty, eighty. …However, the public at large must not suspect this tactic or the scheme would miscarry and public opinion would forsake those that openly defend my policies.
The latter point is crucial. This giant proliferation of government-controlled newspapers must seem to the public as one more turbulent expression of the free market for news. The government’s newspapers must give every appearance of being private newspapers, independent and free. For by that appearance they will gain the citizen’s trust. And with that trust they can instruct and lure the citizen to the ruler’s convenience. An apparently democratic state, by this ruse, turns covertly into the ruler’s propaganda state.
Machiavelli: I shall have an aristocratic [press] organ in the party of aristocrats, a republican organ in the republican party, a revolutionary organ in the party of revolution, an anarchistic organ, if need be, in the party of anarchists. Like the god Vishnu, my press will have a hundred arms, and these arms will stretch out their hands throughout the country delicately giving form to all manner of opinion. Everyone will belong to my party without knowing it. Those who think they are speaking the language of their party will be acting for mine. Those who think they are marching under their own banner will be marching under mine.
But Machiavelli reserves the most important role to covertly controlled newspapers that hoist an ‘opposition’ flag against his own government.
Machiavelli: Newspapers devoted to me will attack me, cry out, and stir up controversy about me.
Montesquieu: That is beyond me. I’m not following you.
Mach.: It’s not that difficult. Let it be well understood that neither the foundations nor the principles of my government will ever be attacked by the newspapers I’m talking about. They will only give voice to polemical nitpicking and will be an in-house opposition operating within the narrowest limits.
Mont.: So what’s the use of all this?
Mach.: That’s a rather naïve question. The advantages are quite considerable in themselves. But beyond them, most people will come to be heard saying something like the following. “This regime lets anyone speak his mind. It is unjustly attacked. But instead of clamping down, which it might do, it puts up with these things and is tolerant.” Another no less important result will be to elicit observations like the following. “See the extent to which the foundations of this government and its principles command the respect of everyone. Here, newspapers are allowed the greatest freedom of speech and yet they never attack the established institutions. [These institutions] stand above unjust accusations born of passion. Even the enemies of the government cannot help but render them homage.”
Mont.: That, I swear, is truly Machiavellian.
Mach.: I am greatly honored…
But of course the press is not enough. A solution must be found to the problem of academic authority. For scholars can investigate the press and expose it. Joly’s Machiavelli is fully aware of this issue, and explains it to Montesquieu: “But you understand quite well that it wouldn’t be worth to escape the attacks of the press if I had to suffer those in books.”
The publication of books will therefore be regimented with subterfuges to ensure that people will not likely read anything truly subversive. The chief idea is a “stamp tax on books that do not have a certain number of pages.” This will make pamphleteering—which is how one reaches a large audience—too expensive.
Machiavelli: [This policy] will considerably reduce the great number of these little books, which are an extended form of journalism. On the other hand, I will force those who want to escape the stamp tax to embark upon long and expensive compositions that will barely sell and will scarcely be read in that form.
By these policies, you will observe, Machiavelli allows some turbulence to churn freely within his system, but he relegates it to the margins. Dissenters are allowed to publish (which they cannot fail to notice); they just can’t reach many people. (This sort of thing has recently been called ‘shadow banning.’)
Beyond this, Machiavelli envisions the apparently free but largely clandestinely controlled news market as a giant mechanism for conducting social science experiments in public opinion and mass indoctrination. Citizens will be flooded with alleged facts, or with their denial, to find out what they are gullible about, and just how gullible they are. They will be assailed by proposals and counter-proposals to learn what they can tolerate, or what further instruction they might still need to support a given policy.
Maquiavelli: In such a way I plumb public opinion and assess whatever reaction I provoke. I try out schemes and plans and make decisions on impulse in order to launch what you call in France ‘trial balloons.’ […] I always have my finger on the pulse of the public.
He can thereby gauge just how far the fabrication of reality might go, and in which manner it should be presented. For this is the entire game: by shaping a convincing “outer world” to which citizens then ‘freely’ respond, he effectively controls the direction of the system, affording the citizens the illusion of sovereignty.
Since the entire scheme depends on the possession of a secret service that can spend the people’s monies without their consent or knowledge, and because the required multifarious covert activities are rather expensive, this shadowy institution must perforce be large and well endowed. To justify its size, its financing, and the growth of both, the leader will have his own agents organize plots and conspiracies, even terrorist attacks, against the government.
Montesquieu: Come clean. The merest whiff of conspiracy [against your government] scares you, doesn’t it?
Machiavelli: You’re wrong. There will be conspiracies under my reign. Some are even necessary.
Mont.: Come again?
Mach.: There might be some genuine conspiracies, but I am not talking about them. I can assure you that there will also be some sham conspiracies. At certain opportune times, when the prince’s popularity is on the decline, they can be an excellent way of arousing the people’s sympathy. …These contrived conspiracies… can lead to the discovery of real conspiracies. Blanket investigations can be undertaken into anything suspect.
In other words, by organizing sham conspiracies and even terrorist attacks against his own government, the elected Prince can get himself voted the needed powers to spy on his own people, which can then “lead to the discovery of real conspiracies” that his genuine opponents might be organizing.
Any real conspiracies against the government, once discovered, will of course be infiltrated and used. In this manner,
Machiavelli: I would be in a position to control the various revolutionary elements in the country. …I will be privy to the most obscure political intrigues. …[And] if there is a commotion somewhere, it is my hand that sets it going. If a plot is hatched, I am the instigator. I am the head conspirator.
This, says Machiavelli, is “a means to influence affairs that can be considerable, if cleverly used.” By such ruses, “the public can be intimidated, and the Prince can, if need be, procure the harsh measures he wants or put into effect those already at hand.” In fact, the public itself can be made to demand—urgently—a quick expansion of the size and powers of the various intelligence services, so that dangerous subversives and terrorists may be dealt with and social peace restored.
But now, an important caveat. Though Joly’s model is heavy on top-down management and corresponds, in that sense, to a ‘Command and Control State,’ it must not be confused with totalitarianism.
Do not confuse a Jolyean State with an Orwellian State
An Orwellian State is totalitarian—that’s what Orwell described in his classic masterpiece 1984. But a Jolyean State is not that. It is true that both Jolyean and Orwellian States deny reality and construct an alternate one, but the style and structure of it is different.
In a totalitarian state, citizens repeat reality-inverting slogans, but there is no seduction in it. It is a ritual of obedience, compelled by force to break the citizen’s will. As such, reality is not quite beyond reach. In one important sense, at least, the reality of an Orwellian State is perfectly transparent to all: the State is the enemy. A totalitarian ruler, like a school bully, betrays his insecurity by his very public show of force, which demands, almost as an obligatory logical implication, that reality must be the opposite of what the cowed citizen, in abject fear, with a gun to his head, is made to declaim.
In Joly’s model, by contrast, force is applied with sparing care and only where strictly necessary. Such uses of force must not be publicly exemplary—as they are in a totalitarian State, where they are meant to frighten—but clandestine. Because the point is to convince the citizens that they live in freedom. The point is to dupe, seduce, and mislead. In a word, to con.
Machiavelli: Ruling today is less a question of doing men violence than of disarming them, less a question of repressing political passions than of de-politicizing men altogether, less a question of censoring their ideas than of assimilating them and subtly altering them.
Do not confuse a Jolyean State with the PRI
Neither should Joly’s model be confused with something like the old PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 continuous years in the 20th century.
I don’t say this because Joly speaks always of a ‘Prince’ whereas the PRI was a power syndicate; every argument in Joly can without difficulty be slightly modified for the latter case. The difference, rather, is that Joly’s model places such a strong emphasis on seduction and verisimilitude, whereas the PRI’s cynicism was, once again, perfectly transparent.
Apathetic Mexican citizens all understood that the PRI would win every election, for the large social corporations, whose votes the PRI controlled, were wedded to the (essentially) one-party State, and the ‘opposition’ parties and the media—obvious to all—were either submissive or else in the State party’s pocket. If necessary, should the opposition develop a spine, and should the PRI’s numbers—extraordinarily—not carry the day, the State party would, with its control of electoral institutions, resort to voter fraud. So the system was overtly ‘pluralistic,’ as in Joly’s model, but, unlike that model, it was also quite openly—rather than secretly—corrupt, and so transparent in its total cynicism that it could fool no one.
The Mexican emperor was naked, and you knew it, and he knew that you knew it, but he wouldn’t compel intense reality-denying rituals. That sort of thing was… unsporting, much too serious. He’d just wink at you, the vulgar rogue, taking brazen delight in parading disrobed his obscene form; and you, a bit shamefaced, would wink right back, perfunctorily role-playing with him a comedy of manners that avoided the excesses of totalitarian States. You’d have to stare at his shlong, that’s all, and politely look away as if nothing were the matter. And you could go about your puny day.
There was State violence, but this wasn’t a wholesale attack on everyone, as in a totalitarian State; it was reserved for those who blurted the truth out in public and pretended (horrors!) to change it—a crime of taste, almost, like an actor on stage who, in mid-sentence, breaks character and complains about the mise-en-scène, ruining the show (which requires at least some pretend suspension of disbelief). Some humorless but committed Marxists and their poverty-stricken, gun-toting followers got the mostly invisible ‘Dirty War’ (‘la Guerra Sucia’), as we call it, and that was certainly no party. And the odd journalist who insisted in that quaint old notion, speaking Truth to Power, would get suppressed (as happened to the Excelsior newspaper when it forgot that it wasn’t supposed to really oppose the regime).
It was a simulation of a democracy that went through the motions, presenting competing parties, holding elections, and allowing a somewhat ‘free press’ that could nevertheless only express itself within certain bounds. Yes, on the surface, Mexico before 2000 did resemble Joly’s model.
Except—and this is quite important—that in Mexico nobody was getting conned.
In private, to everyone, a spade was a spade. Around the dinner table, PRI-governed Mexico was frankly discussed as the obvious dictatorship that it was. From abroad, a Nobel-prize-winning Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, loudly and famously called it “the perfect dictatorship.” We all agreed with Vargas Llosa in Mexico: it was a perfect dictatorship, longer-lasting than any other.
As a democracy, then, Mexico’s PRI was palpably fake, going through the motions entirely for the sake of protocol. Yes, that protocol contained the possibility—if ever so remote—of achieving concrete political substance if and when enough people pushed for it from the grassroots, breathing genuine life into our papier-mâché symbols. But so long as that didn’t happen, the PRI’s ‘democracy’ remained a mere protocol and nobody was fooled. It was impossible to be fooled when it was always the PRI, and only the PRI, that each time returned to power, ‘winning’ every election for 71 years.
But Joly—mind you—was not describing that kind of system.
What Joly described was far more devious: a thoroughly convincing fake democracy.
Joly pictured a system where almost everyone was successfully conned.
A system with vigorous alternation in office of apparently independent and truly competing political parties; an explosive, expressive, combative, and apparently free press; and citizens throwing themselves quite honestly into the political fight, innocently proud of their seemingly vibrant, mature democracy.
Unknown to the common citizen, all media messages, and all choices in the political menu, would be covertly determined and controlled in advance by the intelligence services. As soon as a new movement emerged, covert agents would infiltrate and manage it, making sure, in this manner, that no genuine outsider could ever take power.
Sophisticated tools of psychological (or political) warfare—deployed by the covertly controlled ‘free’ media—would keep the citizens fully committed to the hyper-real ‘democratic’ show, but their participation, unbeknownst to them, would be to no avail: every time, without appearing so, the same cabal would be returned to power. The public protagonists might change, wearing the colors of different parties, but they would all answer to the same master. The system, covertly run always from the intelligence services by the same Syndicate, would thus ever remain.
There is much more to be learned from Dialogue, but this will suffice for now. Let us now turn to the question that is no doubt on my reader’s mind, and to which Montesquieu alludes when he remarks to Machiavelli, “In theory these various schemes seem to be perfectly conceived.” But, in practice, can this really be done?
Is a Jolyean State practically feasible? Can this be done?
Many will be tempted to answer ‘no.’
The reason is that Joly was quite obviously a ‘conspiracy theorist,’ a term now broadly employed to identify those who believe that powerful people plot in secret to undermine democratic government, committing treason against the institutional machinery that is supposed to protect citizen liberties. And conspiracy theorists—and their ideas—have low prestige in established spaces of authority, such as the universities and the mainstream media. In fact, conspiracy theorists are held—as a category, without exceptions—to be literally paranoid.
Not only that. In this common caricature, conspiracy theorists are held incapable—again as a category—of processing evidence rationally. They allegedly always come to the same conclusion (that there is a conspiracy) because every datum, however ambiguous, will somehow be interpreted by their addled minds as positive evidence of a conspiracy. And if they don’t find evidence of something then that will be the ‘evidence’ (it will ‘prove’ that the conspiracy has been cleverly covered up).
There is a historical obstacle, however, against affixing all of these (relatively) recent pejorative connotations of lunacy and poor scientific method on Joly. Because Joly was not speculating but describing.
These strategies and techniques that Joly described were all—as we know from the work of several historians—being implemented right before Joly’s eyes. Because Joly’s Prince—though he never named him—was none other than Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, elected in 1848 as the new president of France.
It follows that Joly was not a prophet in the sense of having clairvoyance. “[Joly] did not peer into the future,” as one scholar puts it, “but looked piercingly at the political and social forces of his time.”1 His work was theoretical in the sense of carefully explaining causal principles and connecting them to political and administrative policies, not in the sense of ‘we don’t really know if this could happen.’ It was happening! Joly was a prophet in the other sense of the term: a man who, alone in his generation, tells the truth that nobody will listen to.
But though Maurice Joly held back the name of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, he wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all the ruler of France. Nor did he really mean to. It was just a tactic, and a shallow one, to try and avoid the long arm of Louis Napoleon’s police. Also to that end, Joly published his work anonymously and from Belgium.
All to no avail—Joly could not hide. Louis Napoleon’s vast intelligence services swiftly identified the author of the anonymously published explanations of his methods, and had Joly arrested, tried, and convicted. The judge’s decision accused that
“ ‘The author charges the French government with having, through shameful means, hypocritical ways, and perfidious contrivances, led the public astray, degraded the character of the nation, and corrupted its morals.’ … [He has] committed the crime of inciting hatred and contempt against the Government.’ ”
Joly was sent to prison (fifteen months). And the government ordered “ ‘confiscation of the copies of the Dialogue in Hell.’ ”2 The book disappeared from circulation and was soon utterly forgotten.
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Joly wrote a dangerous book, a sword with two edges, each as sharp as the other. In the hands of the citizenry, whom it forewarns, the book is dangerous to covertly despotic power elites, whose probable tactics are anticipated and unmasked. But should citizens never read it, the book becomes a danger to them, for undemocratic power elites may then use Dialogue as a manual, learning all sorts of strategies from the brilliant Louis Napoleon about how to manage—via the intelligence services—a democratic polity’s understanding of reality.
What is our own situation?
It is well documented that Dialogue, though confiscated by Louis Napoleon, did not disappear entirely. In the highest circles of the power elites, a few copies of this work were preserved. There, it was read carefully. And it indeed became central to the meaning-based strategies pursued by the worst enemies of democracy in the 20th century. But that is another story.
As for ordinary folk, still today nobody knows Joly. True, he was briefly rediscovered—thanks to Phillip Graves, a brave British journalist—in 1921. But shortly after that Joly was once again plunged into obscurity and has remained so with the general public that he so passionately meant to warn. This includes the university-educated public. In fact, for the most part, it includes even the professional political scientists!
I say this not merely on the basis of my anecdotal encounters with political scientists and their students (though these have been dramatic) but on a simple test I conducted in the JSTOR database, which you can repeat. On the day I did this, JSTOR contained a total of 182 political science journals, including all the most prestigious ones. Searching within political science alone, I queried the string “Maurice Joly.” This giant among political thinkers has been mentioned a grand total of… eight times.
In one of these eight articles, Hans Speier remarks that “in histories of political thought Joly’s Dialogue in Hell has generally been overlooked.”3 Speier wrote that in 1977. The problem has not been corrected.
This state of affairs, where Joly remains virtually unknown to the general population but is carefully read in secret by the power elites, is precisely what you would expect in a phony world—a largely simulated or counterfeit democracy crafted along the lines of Louis Napoleon’s strategies.
Is that the world we live in? Are the most famous and mature democracies in the Western world in fact simulations of democracy with sophisticated means to manage our reality via the intelligence services?
I think the real question is rather: For how long have Western democracies been controlled by stealth totalitarians in Louis Napoleon’s mold?
For we are now rather obviously being transitioned into frank totalitarianism, as Joly predicted that we eventually would be. And it was documented by mainstream historians in the 1980s, as the following essay will show, that Neville Chamberlain had, in 1930s Britain, a system very much like Louis Napoleon’s.
That story, up next:
Speier, H. (1977). The truth in Hell: Maurice Joly on modern despotism. Polity, 10(1), 18-32. (p.23)
The truth in Hell… (op. cit.) p.19-20
The truth in Hell… (op. cit.)