“The ideas of freedom and democracy deteriorate into nothing but irrational faith once they are not based upon the productive experience of each individual but are presented to him by parties or states which force him to believe in these ideas.”
The Canadian progressive social critic Murray Dobbin, author of several books and associate editor of rabble.ca recently published an online appeal calling for the institution of a proportional representation system as a cure for what he identifies as a “crisis of democracy.”
I cannot agree with his diagnosis or his prescription. We do not have a crisis of democracy per se, though our polity is certainly sick. Instituting proportional representation will only treat the symptoms of the disease, while leaving the underlying causes untreated and festering.
In this essay I offer a friendly refutation of Dobbin’s recommendations for proportional representation, which I use only as a starting point to suggest a better treatment for the disease of our mortally wounded polity. Because of the length of the piece, I have split it up into two parts. Part I discusses the political pathology of western liberal “democratic” states, and the system of proportional representation often proposed as a cure. Part II discusses a practical democratic alternative which eliminates all elections, all politicians and all political parties, grounded in a critical reading of classical history.
Mr. Dobbin is like millions of other Canadians who are yearning for a true democracy where their voices count for something. I stand with him. He identifies four “symptoms” of the disease of mainstream Canadian politics.
I quote the first three items in Mr. Dobbin’s diagnosis at length:
“First, we have a government so contemptuous of democracy that it is utterly unapologetic in trying to impose on the country an agenda opposed by probably 75 per cent of the population — treating its minority status not as a mandate to work with other parties but as an irritating impediment to re-engineering the country along the lines defined by the U.S. Christian right.
Second, we are amongst a tiny handful of countries still saddled with the absurdly anachronistic voting system that allows for government by executive dictatorship by any party that can get 40 per cent of the vote.
Third, Canada is witnessing a continuing catastrophic decrease in voter turn out with just 59 per cent voting in the October 2008 election — a result which put us 16th out of 17 peer nations. This aspect of the crisis is largely the result of the first two: a deliberate plan by the political right to downsize democracy through relentless partisanship and people’s frustration at seeing their votes count for nothing.”
One could not agree more that the three phenomena he cites are symptomatic of a political system in deep crisis. The Harper Conservatives are as loathsome a crew as ever ran this country. Do they despise “democracy”? I doubt they even know what the word means, but certainly they hate the majority of the working people and the few “democratic” aspects of our political system. They certainly hold the procedural constraints of the parliamentary system within which they must operate in contempt, and do not hesitate to mock Parliament by warping and twisting the rules of Parliament to suit themselves and their agenda. Their refusal to cooperate with the Parliamentary Committee on Afghanistan is a case in point. They’ve suspended our Parliament twice. Their actions are likely unconstitutional.
True, the first past the post electoral system produces anti-democratic results.
And yes, many people have stopped participating in politics altogether, and many more have stopped participating very deeply. An absolutist kind of power personified of late in the Harper government has taken up residence in the empty space vacated by the public.
Dobbin’s other “symptom” is the collapse of the Liberal party as a national party, as “a vehicle for nation building.” However, there is no national party capable of forming a majority in Parliament any longer. It’s not just the Liberals. Canadian politics has split along regional, class and entho-nationalist lines, an investigation of which is beyond the scope of this discussion.
Mr. Dobbin seems to think that a Liberal coalition government with the NDP is going to usher in an era of progressive social change and reform, including the adoption of proportional representation.
He writes, “We can either take our chances with a coalition with the Liberals or sit on the sidelines and let it continue on its current path: competing with Harper for the centre-right vote and guaranteeing the continued deadlock. If the right-wing of the Liberal party prevails then it will, along with Harper, drag the country ever-further to the right and eliminate any hope of progressive policies down the road. The Liberals are still, inexplicably in my view, blocking a coalition. Ignatieff’s rejection of the coalition in 2009 was the biggest mistake the party could have made.”
Why is this coalition our only option to fight the right? Why would a Liberal NDP coalition be immune to the drift to the right that characterizes the entire mainstream political spectrum in Canada, and notably also the NDP in provincial government?
The Liberal blocking of a coalition with the NDP makes perfect sense. The two parties have mass bases with irreconcilable social interests. The Liberals are a party of capital, while the NDP maintains its base in the workers movement through the trade unions. In politics this combination of interests is oil and water, and always will be.
At the level of policy, the differing interests of the workers and the owners have become impossible to tell from one another. The Liberal Party has recently called for the Harper government to extend Canada’s criminal occupation of Afghanistan in the name of the liberal “humanitarian” interventionism championed by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in his rather tedious books. The NDP policy is for Canada to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2011 as promised (which is officially the Conservative position!) and also for peace talks with the resistance. There is no independent voice for peace and solidarity with the Afghan resistance in Parliament, only the endless dance of negotiations, where principles are exchanged for favours. (One only has to imagine Jack Layton – the author’s MP – calling for the victory of the Afghan national resistance over our criminal occupation to understand how far away is the NDP from a party which represents the real, material interests of workers.)
Even if somehow it was possible to stitch together these two bankrupt parties, the resulting chimera would veer suddenly and sharply to the right, where both parties are now drifting, not to the left, where Dobbin seems to wish it would. The NDP’s recent bashing of one its most able members, Libby Davies for speaking out of turn (and correctly) on the criminal Israeli occupation of Palestine, an indecent act against which Dobbin has admirably spoken out, is one sign among many of the NDP drift rightward. A coalition with the Liberals would only speed up the gutting of the socialist heart of the NDP.
The biggest losers from a Liberal / NDP marriage would be the working class, who would loose the last vestiges of their once semi-independent political voice in parliament, all for the sake of giving some NDP MPs cabinet seats. No doubt that some in the NDP see that as a small sacrifice to make.
Was Ignatieff’s rejection of the coalition the “biggest mistake the (liberal) party could have made”? It depends on who one means by “the party.” Perhaps there are left-liberal supporters who still yearn for a coalition with the NDP. But they do so in vain. The party machine and its base in the business community were perfectly consistent with self-interest in rejecting the coalition. In that respect Mr. Harper’s caucus expressed the mainstream business view far more clearly than could the Ignatieff wing of the Liberal party, which had to rely on diplomatic double talk to disguise the truth. That truth was and remains this: a coalition of the Liberals, NDP and Bloc was and is tantamount to “treason” , as it would constitute a marriage between a capitalist party and the mortal enemies of big capital, workers and Quebec nationalists.
The greatest hope for democracy in this country would be the existence of a mass party that dared to openly avow treason! But it is not to be.
The only “treason” which is allowed in Canada is the murder of democracy to save big capital and its political structures. So the Liberal party mounted an internal coup de main to remove the last leader of the Liberal “left”, Stephane Dion. The abrupt change of leadership violated the Liberal Party’s own constitution. The Liberal Party was “saved” from the taint of admixture with workers and Quebec nationalists by committing treason against itself. And this party organization is going to save us from the right?
They are part of the right.
If this is so, why should workers wish to save the Liberal party? We should instead be working for its destruction. We should be urging it on to make bigger and more costly mistakes!
We need to ask whether the four phenomena Dobbin describes are merely the symptoms of a deeper malady, as opposed to the disease itself. If the premise is false, so must the conclusion be.
Would replacing the Harper government with another selected from the elite crop of lawyers and professional politicians who make up nearly all the candidates of Canada’s incorporated political parties really change anything? The track record of NDP provincial governments in Canada suggests it would not. These have talked from the left in opposition, and governed from the right while in power.
The fact is that the entire political class has interests that are adverse to the vast majority, and this is only becoming too evident to many people, some of whom respond (sensibly in my view) by consciously abstaining from a voting process and an official political system that is a sham.
To quote Robert Michels,
“The victorious bourgeoisie of the Droits de I’Homme did, indeed, realize the republic, but not the democracy. The words Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité may be read to this day over the portals of all French prisons. The Commune was the first attempt, crowned by a transient success, at a proletarian-socialist government; and despite its communistic principles, and under the pressure of extreme financial stringency, the Commune respected the Bank of France as faithfully as could have done any syndicate of inexorable capitalists. There have been revolutions, but the world has never witnessed the establishment of logical democracy.”
In other words, even changes that seem radical – as proportional representation seems to some – are only cosmetic if the underlying problem is unaddressed. The underlying problem is the domination of capital over society, its complete control over the political and the electoral system, and its operation around whatever party we might elect to office. The political part of the problem is that our constitutional set up perpetuates this domination by legitimizing the inequitable system with periodic “democratic” elections.
Even if we elected Green Party leader Elizabeth May as our Prime Minister nothing fundamental would change in Canadian politics. May and her party, with its many well intentioned but naive members would be rapidly co-opted by the capitalist system that Mr. Dobbin has critiqued in his other writings. Many Green Party hacks are already co-opted by “green” big business, and happily so.
Is the first past the post system of voting the deepest thing wrong with our political system, and would changing it really solve our problems, or would it constitute the ultimate distraction from the real problems we face? Can anyone demonstrate that countries with proportional systems are better able to adopt progressive reforms in the face of international pressure from capital in the form of the IMF, World Bank and foreign investor and local banker interests? Greece has a proportional representation system. It’s not helping Greece, where the government has launched massive austerity measures aimed against Greek working people. It’s not helping Latvia, which has a PR electoral system, and which is also under similar attack by capital. Would an increase in voter participation in a bankrupt system really make life more democratic, if proportional representation is indeed just a giant distraction from the real problem of a deeper, systemic political bankruptcy?
I contend that the “crisis of democracy” is not a crisis of democracy at all, but rather a crisis of oligarchy. Semantics? No. For despite appearances, we do not have and have never had a democracy in this country but rather an elective oligarchy. We have rule of the oligoi or the few over the many, as opposed to rule by the demos, the people. “People power” is another good translation for the ancient Greek term demokratia. We don’t have democracy or people power, despite the fact that the democratic label is affixed to any act the political leaders of western states want the public to mutely accept.
To once again quote Robert Michels,
“A conservative candidate who should present himself to his electors by declaring to them that he did not regard them as capable of playing an active part in influencing the destinies of the country, and should tell them that for this reason they ought to be deprived of the suffrage, would be a man of incomparable sincerity, but politically insane. If he is to find his way into parliament he can do so by one method only. With democratic mien he must descend into the electoral arena, must hail the farmers and agricultural laborers as professional colleagues, and must seek to convince them that their economic and social interests are identical with his own. Thus the aristocrat is constrained to secure his election in virtue of a principle which he does not himself accept, and which in his soul he abhors. His whole being demands authority, the maintenance of a restricted suffrage, the suppression of universal suffrage wherever it exists, since it touches his traditional privileges. Nevertheless, since he recognizes that in the democratic epoch by which he has been overwhelmed he stands alone with this political principle, and that by its open advocacy he could never hope to maintain a political party, he dissembles his true thoughts, and howls with the democratic wolves in order to secure the coveted majority. “ [i]
We have an elective oligarchy disguised as a democracy. It’s a sham. We need to get rid of it and establish democracy for the first time. Then we can perhaps have a crisis of democracy.
I contend that it is the entire established world of “representative” electoral party politics that is the political disease from which we suffer, a confusion of oligarchy for democracy with deep historical roots. This is the disease to which reformists and revolutionaries must address themselves, for the political form of electoral oligarchy renders society unable to remove the capitalist parasite from the body of society. Unfortunately most reformers and revolutionaries operate within the confines of party, representative and electoral politics, and so are of little or no help.
In relation to the symptom’s Dobbin identifies, I would add the following analysis that addresses itself to the disease of elective oligarchy.
Electoral party politics attracts the corrupt, the self-seeking, the power hungry, the psychopathological and the sadistic to political office. [ii] This is true in both first past the post and proportional electoral systems. The incentives are the same in both. This is true of every sort of political party and of every tendency from reactionary to revolutionary. [iii]
The people who are inclined to seek office are the very persons which the demos, the people should forever bar from office.
Every inducement that the electoral, representative, party system offers to those seeking office repels the moral, ethical individual with a strong sense of her or his unique self, and attracts what the psychologist Erich Fromm would have termed the “authoritarian” character. [iv] People with an authoritarian character structure crave power over others or else submission to another who has power over them. Our politics is a world polarized between “moral sadists” and “moral masochists.” Because our elected offices are full of these characters, in every party regardless of political orientation on left or right, changing to a proportional representation will merely change the method by which we select which elite gangsters and psychopaths will administer a system of misrule.
The system of misrule is the problem. It stands on three legs: the election system, the political party, and the professional politician, each of which must be hacked off. We need to figure out how to have a democracy without all three, and we can do it.
NO MORE ELECTIONS
The act of voting, the political campaign, the manipulative media messages which use highly refined versions of the same advertising techniques Joseph Goebbels used to sell Germans Hitlerism and which today sell sedentary Americans poisonous food – all of these degrade and debase the public, encouraging the very sense of passivity and receptiveness to manipulation which is most pathologically manifested in those who happily go off to vote, not those who consciously and actively abstain.
A vote for any of the political parties on offer today in Canada is the act of the naïve. It’s a vote for more of the same. It’s a vote for oppression disguised as its opposite. It’s the act of a faithful sheep that happily goes off to be fleeced and then slaughtered. Abstention from voting for the clowns that pass themselves off as our “representatives” is resistance, though of course it is not the entirety of resistance. Active resistance in the streets is what will create the conditions which will achieve a real democracy, but only so long as the people do not allow a party to act for them. Acts of irrational faith in faithless “leaders” and their empty promises will be betrayed. The basic falsity which Robert Michels identified operates at the heart of the electoral system in liberal states. It matters not that the party professes revolutionary aims. Every party member is either a tyrant or an automaton waiting to be born.
Many of those who do not vote abstain for a good reason: because we see that the whole process is a sham. Granted, many people who abstain from voting do so because they’re too busy consuming garbage and have always been politically unconscious. These are the walking dead. Waking these people up will take a whole lot more than telling them that they have yet another vendor of political soft soap from which to make a choice they don’t even care to make. The record of previous attempts to impose a PR system in Canada proves it.
The Ontario Citizen’s Assembly on Electoral Reform recommended a switch to a “mixed member proportional” electoral system. But Ontario voters rejected it in a 2007 referendum. Only 36% of the public voted in favour of the switch. A 60% plurality was required to adopt the measure. Many voters simply did not understand the complicated process recommended by the Assembly, which drew up its recommendations based upon the narrowly defined stock of acceptable political alternatives that circulate at the top levels of mainstream Canadian discourse. We need to question these ideas.
Yes, a PR system could in fact ensure that smaller political parties were represented in Parliament. But who cares? Is that really desirable? Would this not create the kind of crisis prone system we see in places like Italy and Israel? Would this not lead to unstable governments forever at the mercy of the smallest crackpot party that was willing to hold a government hostage to get its way? Would not this result in more backroom power brokering to keep these enfeebled governments together? Don’t we want to get away from all that?
OUT OF PROPORTION
Depending upon the type of PR systems chosen, and they are many, the representation of parties in parliament would simply be closer in proportion to the percentage of votes they receive.
But this is the only way in which such a system would be “proportional.” Who’s political Holy Grail is this? There’s no wine in it. It does not address the actually existing disproportionate representation in Parliament that needs to be made proportional to the community that our Parliament purports to represent.
What kind of people end up getting elected is far more important than how many people cast ballots. Even if voter participation was 99%, the following statistics would barely budge.
There is no guarantee that a system of PR would ensure a 50/50 split between women and men in Parliament, representing the actually existing division of society between the sexes. Only 22.4% of MPs in Canada’s 40th Parliament are women. [v] Election of women would need to more than double to address this imbalance.
Why do our western Parliaments seem to be full of Zionists, Jewish, Christian and secular, when the actual number of Zionists in society is so very small? [vi]
Why does Parliament not adequately reflect the changing ethnic mix of Canada? PR would do nothing about it. 93.2% of MPs in the 40th Parliament are white. [vii] Statistics on race are difficult to determine in Canada, as many non-white statistics Canada respondents list their ethnicity in the census as “Canadian” which is true because the word “Canadian” is not a racial descriptor. The response is thus a legitimate defence against racism, but it makes the racially disproportionate nature of the Canadian parliament difficult to exactly determine. However, the Canadian parliament is much more ethnically representative than it is on a political, professional or class basis. Racial minorities and gays happily serve in the Canadian Parliament – so long as they represent the interests of the ruling class.
Why is Parliament composed entirely of members of private political parties to which 99% of Canadians do not belong, and whose ideologies most Canadians do not truly share? Only 1 to 2 % of Canadians belong to a political party at any one time. [viii] A PR system would not address this at all. In fact it would make the problem far worse, as tiny minority parties would gain leverage out of all proportion to their actual base in society.
There is no guarantee that a PR system would deliver representation in Parliament of working people in proportion with owners and bosses as reflected in the wider society. 61.4% of Canadian MPs in the 40th Parliament come from business. Within this group 15% of the total, or 48 out of 308 MPs are lawyers. [ix]
According to the Federation of Law Societies of Canada, there are 99,617 members of the combined provincial law societies, which would mean that approximately 0.003% of Canadians are lawyers, which make lawyers over represented in Canada’s Parliament by a staggering 5015%, by far the most over represented group in the country, far more so than political party members. [x] If the number of lawyers in Parliament reflected the number of lawyers in society, there would be a single lawyer in the House of Commons.
Under a PR system, parliament would remain the domain of specialized lawyers and managers, who would still be filtered through a system of elite schools and ideology based parties. So we need to ask ourselves, in respect of our system of government, proportional to what, representative of what and of whom? The only thing proportional or representative about the systems of “proportional representation” on offer is the label. Supporters of PR ask us to drink from an empty cup.
NO MORE PROFESSIONAL POLITICIANS. NO MORE PRIVATE POLITICAL PARTIES.
Those who cherish the fantasy that “anybody can be elected to office” in Canada need a serious reality check.
There remains an informal property qualification that functions as a barrier to political office in Canada, even after the last formal property qualification was abolished in 1948. [xi] The qualification takes two forms, one material, the other mental. Only the very wealthy or upper middle class can afford to send their children to Canada’s elite universities, where tuition fees have skyrocketed in the last twenty years while incomes have stagnated or declined in terms of purchasing power. This makes education once again the privilege of the wealthy, and bars the door to elective office on a class basis, all while keeping up democratic appearances.
The process of legal training or working one’s way to the top of a business corporation weeds out 99.9% of critical, independent or dissident thinkers. [xii] But advocates of PR systems often desire to elect more independent thinkers, dissidents with new ideas to Parliament. Successful lawyers and business people learn to project the dominant values of society, those supporting capital and state power, NOT the majority of Canadian working people who are exploited by capital, and oppressed by the state. Thus the means – PR – cannot effectively deliver the ends –progressive, democratic reforms – sought by PR proponents. The cup Dobbin passes us is not only empty, it has a hole in the bottom.
Within the educated elite, one must decide to cede one’s power of independent thought over to one of the established party ideologies to become a serious candidate for office. But only 1% to 2% of Canadians belong as card carrying members of one of these parties. [xiii] The median age of party members is getting older, signifying a decline in youth participation. And even that membership is largely passive, leaving a very narrow section of people at the activist, elite core.
This elite is refreshed mostly by ideologically driven students who join the various elite campus political clubs, cutting their teeth on student councils, then graduating to office internships and other sinecures within party organizations. (The confessional book by the former US Republican operative Allen Raymond, “How to Win/Rig an Election” is an excellent account of the activities of the dedicated party activist, albeit from a US perspective. Under the Harper Conservative government, US style campaign practices inspired by the GOP are increasingly being imported into Canada. [xiv] )
Previously drawn from successful posts in top law firms and away from the ownership of large business enterprises, an increasing number of new MPs and MPPs have no life experience other than as party activists. In the United States, more than 70% of Congressmen and Senators come to be elected after holding other high political offices, making US politicians an even more exclusive caste.
MPs thus are drawn from a tiny fraction of 1% of the population. And we call this democracy, rule by the people?
Canadian political parties are essentially private institutions with a tiny self-selected activist membership, from which almost all candidates for office are drawn. To be a serious “party man” one must display values like unquestioning obedience to “the leader” and be capable of internalizing the party ideology, especially when that ideology contradicts the reality of lived experience. This is the real test of the “party man” – to be able to mouth the party line at all times. It’s called “messaging” but it’s really a pathology. [xv] Professional politicians become skilled at repeating the talking points of the moment, but seem unable to respond to reality. One can observe the phenomenon by watching interviews with politicos who keep stumbling back to their “talking points” out of all context to the questions they are being asked. Campaign slogans become like hypnotic mantras that short circuit rational thought. Those skilled at self-hypnosis and self-deception using repeated buzzwords can then go on to the serious business of hypnotizing and deceiving others – the public.
Adding new political parties, forced to organize along the lines of a private not for profit corporation, and forced to appeal to the public in an electoral and media arena dominated by big capital and its bought and paid for parties is no solution at all to the problem of corrupt, empty party politics in Canada.
There are no new ideas worth pursuing inside the system.
Political parties in Canada currently obtain their ideas from a small group of elite, right wing think tanks such as the Fraser Institute or the C.D. Howe Institute, which dramatically limit the range of political ideas passing for polite and public discourse. The Canadian media, which is concentrated in the hands of a very few wealthy and very right wing persons, forms the other protective filter for polite discourse.
“Proportional representation” – which is neither proportional nor representative – is on the fringe of this polite discourse, admitted because it’s not a major threat to the real source of power in this country, which lies outside the electoral process and which short circuits the will of the voters and of Parliament at its pleasure. That power is the power of capitalist business corporations, whose elite think tank is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Having to co-opt a bunch of new fringe political parties that might obtain seats in Parliament under a PR system would be an inconvenience for Canadian big business, perhaps even a major one. It might cost a lot of money and take some time. But it would be done.
The elective system is supposed to select those with the best qualities for public service, but it only selects those with the most self-seeking ambition, the most potent desire to “get ahead.” Political office becomes a career, or else a stepping stone to a higher paying job at a top law firm or business. How are such people supposed to advocate for the majority?
That this system has failed in all liberal “democratic” western states can be attested to by the sheer number of corruption scandals before us. From Rahim Jaffer’s shady business dealings to the half forgotten “sponsorship scandal”, to the institution of congressional embezzlement and graft in the USA and the whole war in the Middle East, electoral politics has produced government by self-dealing dolts and determined profit seeking con men who will stop at nothing, because no moral or ethical force of their own stops them, and because no institutional check within our system is capable of stopping them. They can’t stop themselves, and neither can we, except perhaps after they’ve abused their office, or funneled money to a favoured contractor, etc. Witness the mass murderer Tony Blair, who has come out with a new tell all book, who parades himself before the world as a “peacemaker” with the same sincerity as a prostitute who says “I love you”, and who still flashes that killer smile at his victims. He has reason to smile; he’s earning millions of dollars a year.
The entire world is governed on the western liberal “democratic” model of electoral oligarchy that puts people like Tony Blair in power. Well, the entire world which has been created by this political system sucks.
Our so-called “democratic” states are captive to a tiny elite who own it and operate it privately, under the pretense of public management. The electoral system justifies this pretense.
Forty percent of global assets are held by just one percent of global population. This one percent controls the electoral and political party systems. We can’t solve the various problems faced by the world, from war, to pollution and human liberation, because the solutions we want, the solutions we know will work, are “politically impossible” under the current system of elective oligarchy. Making the pool of oligarchs a bit more diverse solves nothing, and it distracts us from the deeper change that’s required. The electoral and political party systems are their systems, not the people’s systems.
The solution is to start over again, and to establish a democracy that by its very structure makes government by self-selected psychopaths impossible, makes corruption impossible, and puts all power, not just some of it in the hands of ordinary working people, unmediated by parties, free of manipulative elections and untouched by the corrupting hand of capital and its inbred lawyers.
ELECTIONS + POLITICAL PARTIES = DEMOCRACY?
Our system is a mishmash of inherited custom and tradition from the past. Where Mr. Dobbin suggests we rid ourselves of one aspect of it, I’m for starting over. Our parliamentary system doesn’t work, and it can’t be fixed or made more democratic. It’s undemocratic by design. We worship the slavish traditions, the pomp and ceremony of Canadian parliamentarism at our peril and the peril of future generations.
We need to be very clear about what “democratic” means, and to do this we need to examine the history of democracy, as well as our own unquestioned assumption that we live in a democratic state just because we have periodic elections from amongst a narrow group of privately selected candidates. Nothing could be further from the truth, and an examination of the development of representative government in the west proves it.
Thomas Paine writes of the English reactionary Edmund Burke’s attack on the French Revolution that “he confounds democracy and representation together.” [xvi] Likewise, James Madison affirmed in Federalist # 14 that “… in a democracy the people meet and exercise the government in person; in a republic they assemble and administer it by their representatives and agents.”
Proponents of proportional representation, indeed most people have made the same mistake as Burke; we confound representative government and democracy, though they are not the same thing at all. It’s a mistake that’s encouraged by the state and capital, because it keeps us wandering about in the dark playing with useless “solutions” like proportional representation.
As the working class in America and Europe was rising in the 19th century, western liberals began to attach the “democratic” label to representative parliamentary systems, as the franchise was slowly extended to working class men, and as the appeal of communism and economic democracy grew. Liberalism held out the promise of parliamentary “democracy” to counter the urge to direct democracy. The process was buttressed by historians who interpreted then contemporary political developments in the light of classical history. A primary theme of the bourgeois narrative of 19th and 20th century liberal political development became the “democratization” of Europe and America as the inheritors of classical Rome, despite the fact that bourgeois parliaments were never democratic by classical standards, and neither was Rome!
The confusion took hold, and so today we think of regular elections from among a group of candidates put forward by private political parties as “democracy.” But this is rather “representative government” and it’s a recent invention, drawing more on the practices of ancient oligarchies such as Rome and from the ancient English and German political traditions (however mythologized) than on the true democratic tradition of ancient Athens. The democratic impulse of the French Revolution as expressed in Thomas Paine’s writings was quickly snuffed out, but reared it’s head half a century later in the struggle of industrial workers for direct democracy on the shop floor.
We must turn to these most ancient democratic traditions for solutions to our modern problems.
I’m not going to propose that we run the country based on a giant national mass meeting or even one based on the internet, though that has been suggested by others in the past. This would mirror the Athenian practice of holding an assembly of all the citizens (who were all male and not slaves) on the Pnyx hill. This Assembly, the Eklessia, deliberated on all major decisions, and has been rightly praised as the essence of direct democracy. But it’s not the whole story of Athenian democracy.
While I think that direct democracy might have an application in local government as it certainly has in a democratic workplace, I’m going to set that aside for the purposes of this essay to address the question of representation in national politics. For to govern a large polity, it is going to be necessary to have a division of labour, with some citizens chosen in some manner for political offices, and most not. Athens was a small city, with perhaps thirty thousand citizens at its height. Canada covers a territory far larger than the empire of Alexander the Great. Pure, direct democracy in a mass meeting is only practical on the most local, smallest scale, as political philosophers from Montesquieu onward have agreed.
Dobbin proposes a modified system for choosing our representatives. So do I, after a fashion. But I contend that no person who actively seeks political office should ever be allowed to hold it, and that the act of actively seeking political office in the state should instead be a serious crime, not something we reward with power and prestige.
I will describe a truly democratic system and its historical basis in Part II.
[i] Robert Michels, Political Parties, 1915, page 3
[ii] These terms should be understood in the full range of psychologically “sadistic” and “pathological” phenomena, as described by Erich Fromm and others. This is not to characterize all politicians as violent sadists or psychopaths, which would be obviously inaccurate, but to note the tendency in politicians towards a range of behaviours which are maladaptive along this part of the psychological continuum of behaviour. Fromm characterized most “well adjusted” members of society has exhibiting some degree of morally sado-masochistic behaviour.
[iv] See Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
[vii] Canada’s 40th Parliament op cit
[viii] Cross and Young, Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity, in “Choices” a publication of The Institute for Research on Public Policy at www.irrp.org
[ix] Canada’s 40th Parliament, op cit
[xi] See Elections Canada’s History of the Vote in Canada at http://www.elections.ca/content.asp?section=gen&dir=his&document=index&textonly=false (Reform of electoral politics has served as a “pressure relief valve” function, but as the capitalist economic system lurches from crisis to crisis, it is becoming more brittle, and the oligarchs in charge are less and less able to offer further democratic reform, even of the most trifling kind, such as PR.)
[xiii] Cross and Young, Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity, in “Choices” a publication of The Institute for Research on Public Policy at www.irrp.org
[xiv] Raymond, Allen with Spiegelman, Ian. How to Win Rig an Election, Confessions of a Republican Operative, Simon Schuster, 2008
[xvi] Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Part the Second