In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others.Alexis De Tocqueville – Democracy In America
Many of you will be familiar with the phrase I have taken as the title of this article. You may remember it from the protests against the Iraq War 2003. Or from the anti-Poll Tax campaign(s) of the early 1990s or, for Scotland, 1989. It is an apt slogan for such mass movements. Its provenance makes it particularly appropriate. Authorship is commonly attributed to the leading English Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Inspired by the atrocity of the Peterloo Massacre (1819) he penned the poem The Masque of Anarchy, one verse of which should be sufficient to convey the sense of the piece.
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
That final line, now expressed as “We are many! They are few!”, is imbued with the spirit of democracy. It resonates with the power of the masses. It has inspired writers such as Henry David Thoreau, who refers to it in his essay Civil Disobedience; arguing that people should rigorously guard against the tendency of established power to submerge individual conscience in what we would now call group-think and thereby suborn the masses to be accomplices in acts of great folly or grave injustice.
Mohandas Gandhi deployed the phrase to inspire and ignite the campaign which ultimately brought to an end British imperialist rule in India. His doctrine of Satyagraha informed the kind of non-violent civil resistance which demonstrates the too often disregarded or discouraged idea that the power of the masses is such that it need not manifest as violence in order to be effective. The few resort to violence in defence of privilege because they lack the power of the many. The many have no need of physical force if they have “knowledge of how to combine”. Gandhi had that knowledge. He shared it. The product was a force which overawed and overcame even the might of the British Empire.
Tocqueville recognised that democratic power is, in itself, inadequate. Only when knowledge of how to combine is applied can that power be harnessed and directed to a purpose. We may assume that he meant enlightened knowledge and benign purposes. There is no malice in the many other than that which is injected by the few as they seek to usurp the power of the many. As, for instance, in the demonisation of selected individuals or groups or nations or races. A well-crafted propaganda campaign will persuade the masses that the selected target is their enemy and the author of all their misfortunes, real or imagined – or imagined for them by compliant mass media. More insidiously, it will overwhelm individual conscience to implant the conviction that the hatred provoked is real and rightful and wholly owned by the individual rather than having an external source.
It is this tendency that Tocqueville urges us to resist. If we do not use our democratic power for our own purposes; if we are careless with that power; if we are unaware of that power, then it shall at some point and to some extent be commandeered by the few – for purposes that need bear no relation to our preferences, priorities and aspirations.
How well we resist the pirating of our democratic power depends critically on our knowledge of how to combine. How firmly that knowledge is grasped by individuals. How thoroughly the knowledge is distributed within the masses.
The few possess knowledge of how to combine. That is how they become the few. They are versed in the forms of combination which create and sustain the structures of power, privilege and patronage which comprise the established order. The few are fully aware of the potential of combination to give rise to countervailing powers such as might successfully challenge prevailing power. That is why the few legislate against or otherwise suppress any kind of association among the many which, according to their knowledge of combination, could constitute a threat to their status. For established power to persist, the right of association must be ‘managed’. For the many to prevail, the superordinate nature of individual conscience must be asserted by deploying shared knowledge of how to combine.
Seldom, perhaps never, has it been so vital that we acquire knowledge of how to combine and share that knowledge as widely as we can and use that knowledge to realise the power of the many. Seldom, perhaps never, have the few had such opportunity to entrench established power and more efficaciously ‘manage’ the ability of the few to combine. The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to circumstances in which we may too easily be persuaded that individual conscience must be subordinate to the need to protect life. It is but a short step from there to the idea that the rights of the many must be liable to sacrifice in the interests of the many. The interests of the many being defined by the few. The rights of the many being delineated by the few so as to allow the interests of the many to be defined by the few. The interests of the many being defined as requiring that the few take the power to delineate the rights of the many. You see how this goes.
You may also see that this requires no formal conspiracy. Tyranny is an emergent property of human social and economic organisation held in check by democracy. Tyranny is what you get if you don’t do anything to prevent it. Passive democracy is doomed democracy. If you are not actively defending democracy then you are facilitating tyranny. And don’t be lulled by the fact that tyrannies may seem small. They accumulate and grow. They combine. Unless we combine to prevent it. Wealth is a metaphor (some would argue a synonym) for power. We all know how wealth is accumulated and concentrated. In a process that is indistinguishable, power tends to be accumulated and concentrated. In both cases this process is enabled by knowledge of how to combine.
Tocqueville reminds us that all progress depends on knowledge of how to combine. But progress is a fluid concept. What constitutes progress? If the many do not combine to answer this question according to some aggregate of the dictates of individual conscience then be in no doubt that the few will answer it in ways the many won’t like.
We are many. But without knowledge of how to combine, that is not enough.
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