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Matthijs van Boxsel is a man of letters who has been researching, writing and lecturing on stupidity for over 20 years. Van Boxsel is currently at NIAS as writer-in-residence, where he works on two books: the Handbook Bâtaphysics and The Topography of Stupidity. In his Encyclopedia of Stupidity (Reaktion Books, 2003), he explores a past and present world of mishaps and misunderstandings. Below a fragment from the chapter "On the Inherent Stupidity of Constitutional Monarchies".
"Though a Leftist or Rightist radical may do violence to the democratic norms, he does not shake the foundations of democracy. Elections, by contrast, pose a direct threat to democracy because they are not a rebellion but a lawful democratic revolt against democracy. The people normally subjected to the will of legislators are suddenly set above the legislators, opening up an abyss in which the established order disappears. Elections mean not only the end of those temporarily in charge of the country but also the suicide of democracy.
Yet, once this round of self-destruction is over, once the serpent has swallowed itsell a new order emerges.
Seen in that light, every democracy is a caricature of itself – anarchy becomes democracy. Democracy has its roots in a self-denying, legitimized idiocy.
This self-destructive aspect has to be concealed if democracy is to keep its credibility. Stupidity only works unseen. Yet stupidity must never be ignored, because it constitutes the very basis of democracy. For that reason the pathological self-destruction constituting the reverse of unselfish self-sacrifìce must be allowed to surface from time to time.
Democracy proves its strength by leaving the voters free to give vent to their idiocy during elections. Only the will to stupidity, the will to surrender to irrational chance, renders democracy possible. However there is always the risk that elections may degenerate into anarchy and thus put a fìnal end to democracy. For that reason the centre of power, which is the centre of idiocy may not be left vacant for too long.
But democracy is threatened by yet another danger.
Brekeke-kesh, koash, koash
Brekeke-kesh, koash, koash.
Aristophanes, The Frogs
Democracy is based on the belief that those elected by the people for their desirable qualities will govern the country rationally. But who judges the qualities of those who judge the qualities? There is no ultimate guarantee of the suitability of the rulers.
The representatives of the people in a democracy can never dominate the political order because they remain subjects, they are judged by others. In short, democracy is defined by an insuperable barrier preventing subjects from occupying the centre of power for good.
Democracy is a permanent transition, a continuous interregnum. The acceptance of this immanent impossibility is characteristic of democracy. The election result entitles a subject to hold power temporarily as a stand-in for an impossible ruler. He has the status of a plenipotentiary. (Claude Lefort, L'Inyention démocratique, Paris, 1981)
Lest ministers grow too attached to their plush armchairs, we refer disdainfully to government money-grubbers, metropolitan arrogance, big shots, and so forth. In that way we remind ourselves and those who govern us of the distance between them and the centre of power.
Because nobody can be a direct embodiment of the people, the locus of power must remain vacant. Our temporary rulers occupy no more than the empty seat of an impossible sovereignty. The centre of power is a purely symbolic place; a holder of real political power cannot occupy it without transforming democracy into a dictatorship. Successful politicians pose the greatest danger to democracy."
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