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Is Democracy an End in Itself or a Means to an End?

Editor's Note: This essay was written by a student in one of Dennis Loo's social theory classes as a final paper. The student is a working class Latina. We publish it here as a good example of student reaction to Chapter Five in Dennis Loo's Globalization and the Demolition of Society. The paper has been edited very slighty for clarity for readers who are not familiar with the works that she cites. Readers are also urged to read an essay by Dennis Loo at OpEd News published on March 19, 2012 entitled "Is Voting a Solution?

Democracy can be defined as the free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government, often practiced by electing representatives of the people by the majority of the people. But in reality people do not have much of a choice of who to vote for because there are only a certain number of candidates one could vote for. In other words, we are only given certain choices and whether we like them or not, we must vote for one of them. An example similar to this is given by Loo (2011) in which he states:

If someone offers you vanilla ice cream and you eat it with relish, this does not mean that you decided that you would rather have vanilla than, say, chocolate. It merely means that you respond favorably to vanilla and are willing to eat it… the fact that you eat the vanilla does not prove anything other than that you would rather have vanilla ice cream than nothing at all (p. 220-221).

Karl Popper sees that the meaning of democracy is representative and not directly participatory [democracy “is the right of the people to judge and to dismiss their government, the only known device by which we can try to protect ourselves against the misuse of political power; it is the control of the rulers by the ruled.”]. As Loo (2011) points out, however, this means that people will never have any real power over politics because the very most that the people can do is to determine which of the few candidates will exercise political rule over them (Loo, 2011, p. 240-241). “As long as the people remain in a politically passive position vis-à-vis the rulers, democracy will remain an unrealized rhetorical devise, fit for masking the true sources of political power in the hands of the few” (p. 241). Even once the people elect someone, nothing guarantees us that the winning candidate will follow through on the promises he or she made during his or her campaign (p. 241). At least with the vanilla ice cream example, we know how it will taste, therefore, we know what to expect, but on the other hand, with the elected candidate in reality we do not know what to expect. The people’s lack of control over the rulers or elected leads me to say that if democracy is assumed to be good because it allows people to have a say over their lives and society then is democracy in reality an end in itself? Or is it a means to an end?

Democracy as an end in itself means that the outcome of the democratic processes matter less than the fact that you have done things democratically (Loo, 2011). For example, what matters more is that you vote and not really who you vote for, so it really does not matter how informed you are; what matters is that you participate. The philosophy that forms the foundation of this perspective is agnosticism which means the truth is not knowable. Therefore, if truth is not knowable, then you might as well let the majority vote. (Loo, 2011, p. 252). Loo (2011) further explains:

If the truth is not knowable, and facts can all be disputed such that no decision can be made about their veracity, then it does not matter what one’s opinion is because we cannot determine what is real anyway. Hence, all opinions are equal because there is no independent criterion of truth (p. 252).

Immanuel Kant supported this view; he believed that some of the world will always be unknowable, specifically, that we can never know a “thing in itself” or real truth. On the other hand, Engels [in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific] critiqued Kant’s view and stated that if it is possible to have objective knowledge or truth then it is possible to have a scientific socialism instead of a utopian socialism which is based on good intentions and good ideas apart from historical development (Engels, 2007). If we can know real truth, then humanity can become conscious participants in shaping society. Nonetheless, expertise and knowledge is necessary and some things should not be subject to just a vote (Loo, 2011, p, 252). The problem of the lack of expertise can be addressed by an informed populace (p. 253). However this is not easy to do. By contrast, Durkheim claims that the state and the media represent the collective conscience [i.e., the people] (McIntosh, 1997). The media and the government have an incredible ability to mislead the people which in turn leads the people to have incorrect beliefs and make incorrect decisions. (Loo, 2011, p. 253).

Democracy as a means to an end is the view that voting in itself is not sufficient. People must become aware of what is really going on and understand and participate in political rule though mass participation. Loo states that “an informed opinion means more than an uninformed opinion and expertise and experience matter” (p. 255). The philosophy that forms the foundation of this perspective is empiricism which is the view that truth and reality are knowable. If truth is knowable then the majority should not be the only one voting but also the experts in order to make most advanced decisions. However the involvement of mass participation is necessary if the historic inequalities between those in power and those who are ruled are to be eventually overcome (p. 255).

After considering what democracy as an end in itself is understood as in comparison to democracy as a means to an end, it is clear to me that currently democracy is being treated as an end in itself rather than a means to an end as it should be.

Marxism and Leninism treated democracy as a means to an end. Marx believed that people are capable of great things and all deserve to be treated with dignity and to be exposed to the greatest things that humanity has to offer. The end in the Marxist view is composed of two factors - the best decisions and social equality. In order to move towards that end, the contradictions of those who lead and those who are led must be settled. This contradiction actually expresses an underlying dialectic which is the tension between freedom and necessity (Loo, 2011, p. 256).

Democratic theory glosses over the gap between leaders and led. The theory in principle suffers from two problems. The first has to do with the nature of organization itself which democratic theory glosses over. The second has to do with the fact that economic inequality and the means of coercion are part and parcel of power exercised in and through the state (p. 256).

Robert Michels’ “Iron Law of Oligarchy” underscores the problem that no two people have equal voices in the face of an organization’s demands. Nonetheless, groups cannot operate without group leaders (p. 257). Leaders are leaders because they have more insight, experience, and a deeper understanding and therefore might make the best decisions. However, this introduces a problem to democracy because then only one person decides what is true. Also other problems that could arise are that first of all, sometimes the expert could be wrong. Secondly, the leaders can take advantage of the power given to them and make certain decisions for their benefit and third, people out of the loop never learn to become leaders. Marx stated that you cannot get rid of leadership but there must be a certain kind of leaders in order to accomplish this end, “leaders and the led operate in a dialectical relationship to each other, when handled properly” (p. 257). Loo defines two different kinds of leaders, one that says “Trust me I know what is best” and the other that says “This is the situation, what should we do? I want to train you to learn how to lead others in order to realize your species-being.” The first kind of leader excludes the led and just expects them to follow. The second kind of leader wants the led to learn from history, learn from others and understand what is really going on. Marx believes that the kind of leader that would be ideal is the one that believes in working together to achieve and that has the interest of the group in their heart and who is more inclusive. Marx also believes that leadership will always exist but in order to have a just society people must be involved and we must have the right kind of leader, which would be a charismatic leader (McIntosh, 1997).

Marx believed that oppression and class differences were the main problem and should be eliminated. In Letters to Weydemyer Marx states:

Long before me bourgeois historians had described the development of this class struggle and bourgeois economist the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did new was to prove: 1. that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat 3. that this dictatorship itself only constitutes to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society…” (McIntosh, 1997, p. 107).

The bureaucratic spirit is anti-democratic in nature and it runs the modern world. Michels and Weber felt pessimism about bureaucracy’s dominance. Michels believed that as long as there is an organization involved then it will turn into an oligarchy which is an outcome of the nature of bureaucracies. Michels and Weber felt that bureaucracies were forever and were interrupted only rarely by charismatic leaders and their movements. Marx and Engels believed that as long as there are classes there will be inequality and therefore oppression and coercion will exist. This is because there is no such thing as a neutral state and a state or government exists at all because there is an unequal division of resources. There are people who believe that revolution is the fullest expression of democracy. However, revolutionaries cannot leave the bureaucracy alone because it will once again be in control. (Lenin, 1966, State and Revolution).

Weber’s observation that bureaucracies inevitably triumph over community action holds true because bureaucracies systematize and routinize the allocation of responsibilities and tasks which makes them highly organized. Mass movements, while much larger than bureaucracies in general, do not have this level of specialization and rationalization of tasks. There is no getting around the fact that if an oligarchy is to be avoided, the led must step up to monitor and increasingly participate in self-governance (Loo, 2011, p. 258).        

Bureaucracies are necessary but they are an obstacle to authentic popular rule. Weber states that they are hierarchical, top down, suppressing, secretive, and antidemocratic. An alternative to cope with the problems that bureaucracies create is to rely on people who have political consciousness, the ones who want mass participation. Also to win over as many people who have expertise and who are interested in helping the people. Then people must be taught to become experts and use forms in their structures that will be made by mass bodies and mass debates. In order to learn, people must engage and participate in popular rule and mass debates which will lead to the slow breakdown of bureaucracies.


Engels, Frederick. 2007. Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Pathfinder.

Lenin, Vladimir. 1966. Essential Works of Lenin, Bantam Press.

Loo, Dennis. 2011. Globalization and the Demolition of Society. Larkmead Press

McIntosh, Ian. 1997. Classical Sociological Theory: A Reader, NY University Press.






0 # Michelle Ngo 2014-04-07 06:16
Why does the representatives that we vote for say one thing and means something else or do not do what they said that they would do? We are used to living in a society where others can make an opinion for us and we follow them. What we do not see is how it has affected our lives. We are taught that we can participate in the government, but how can we trust them when we do not see a change that they said that they would make? They are the leaders that we voted for to be in office to make the changes that said would be done, but it seems like they never keep their words.
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0 # Christine Lopez 2014-06-09 02:47
Commenting from Chapter 5 Why voting inst the society the problem with democratic theory from Dr. Loo book Globalization and Demolition of Society. I agree with Dr.Loo when he uses the example of injunction "That a person should vote but it did not matter who or what they voted for".
it seem that when ever election time is around the media is running all these commercials trying to gain the vote of young people who are not aware of the campaign promises. I recall slogan like Rock the Vote.
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