Paradise Lost, Paradise Found: The True Meaning of Democracy, by Arthur D. Robbins (Review)

Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
Oh won’t you please take me home
Guns ‘N Roses

This fascinating book is unique amongst radical theories of democracy in that it’s written by a clinical psychologist with a particular interest in psychopathology – as such his primary emphasis is on the (two-way) relationship between political systems and character. Whereas most books focus on the institutional level, Dr. Robbins constantly reminds us that entities like ‘governments’ and ‘nations’ are merely abstractions, by adding (in parentheses) ‘person or persons in power’ every time he uses the word ‘government’. History is ‘nothing but a vast battlefield after the battle is over – a mountain of the corpses of men, women, and children from around the world and across time who have been slaughtered to satisfy the warriors in their quest for blood and glory’ (p.229). Political leaders are subjected to psychoanalytic scrutiny and are (with the exception of a small number of Athenian statesmen) mostly diagnosed in terms of psychopathy – not just the obvious cases (Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot) or even the usual suspects (Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Kahn, Napoleon), but also less extreme examples like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Dr. Robbins explains the development of psychopathy in terms of dysfunctional childrearing and early maternal relationships, so history is, in effect, reduced to the psychiatrist’s couch. Strangely enough (given his idolisation of Athenian democracy) this explanation is derived from Greek literature, forcing him to conclude that the dysfunctional relationship between mother and son is limited to the Greek aristocracy (p.303). Given that such psychopathic individuals – ‘a special subset of men’ – are fundamentally different from ‘us’ (p.309), then the goal of democracy is not so much ‘power to the people’ as making sure that the bad guys don’t get hold of the reins. Rotation of office (and/or mass participation in government) is not so that we may all, as Aristotle put it, ‘rule and be ruled in turn’ but simply to reduce the likelihood of handing power to a psychopath.

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