221, Topic 17: Elections And (Or?) Democracy

I know I have a strict policy of not starting pieces of writing with quotes, hence this sentence. Lenin once said that “Democracy is indispensable to socialism,” and “Socialism cannot be decreed from above. Its spirit rejects the mechanical bureaucratic approach; living, creative socialism is the product of the masses themselves.” He had some real jewels that Lenin, what a joker. This was of course the Lenin that started the gulags, the Red Terror, War Communism, instituted a one party state, and provided the basis for one of the most repressive and murderous regimes in history. Mussolini called democracy a beautiful theory,  even Hitler had some occasionally kind words for it, “Democracy in our eyes is a regime that is supported by the will of the people.” [My New Order, 554], ‘the people’ there, of course, referring to his beloved German volk. Mao called for a New Democracy, under the auspices of which the Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution happened. Bush declared a literal war (you know, with guns, soldiers, and missiles) against terror (you know, the emotion) in the name of democracy. The U.S.A. has supported and armed some of the most oppressive regimes in the world on democracy’s behalf, while Al-Sisi and the army in Egypt have sentenced almost 700 people to death in an attempt to ‘save’ democracy, and Putin is poised to invade Europe to stop the ‘anti-democratic fascists’ in the Ukraine. So with this vague and amorphous word ‘democracy’ referring to everything from Soviet totalitarianism, Chinese state directed capitalism, Mussolini’s fascism, the will of the volk in the Third Reich, American imperialism, nations with hereditary heads of state, ultra-nationalist Putinism, and violent military-enforced ‘liberal’ secularism in the Middle East, how do we even know what democracy is, let alone whether or not its actually desirable?

If you were to ask your man (sorry, cismale, gendernormative fascist) on the street what democracy is, I’m sure you’d get a range of responses, the most basic of which would surely be ‘voting’. But we vote for all sorts of things, who our favourite potential popstar is, who our favourite contestant on a cooking show is, which snack is your favourite on Stuff. Surely this isn’t what the Anzacs fought and died for. Okay then, well it’s voting for your leaders. But the Chinese vote for their leaders, the North Koreans do as well, in fact they love Kim Jong Un. Okay, so then it’s choosing between a range of leaders with your vote, exercising a free choice. But the UK doesn’t let people choose its head of state, and in 1933, Germany chose the incontrovertibly democratic Hitler as their Head of Government. It becomes clear that democracy is more than just voting. The assumption of democracy in the West is of a liberal representative democracy, where the rights to freedom of speech, assembly, choice, a fair trial, to lobby your government, a free press, where all those things exist. It’s a wider state of affairs than simply voting. People talk of ‘democratic institutions’ (independence of the judiciary, press, constabulary, public service etc.). They talk of pluralism, where the rights of the many do not exclude the rights of the few, so it’s definitely not just popular assent. Consent is also key, that government only exists legitimately if it possesses the consent of the governed. That’s a nice picture of democracy. It seems to exclude the things we don’t want to acknowledge as democracies: the Third Reich, Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, American Idol, and affirm that lovely western countries, like the US, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand are preferable to nasty countries like Russia, China, and Cuba.

And then in terms of how democratic a country is, it’s just a matter of how closely it resembles these conditions, so A.) that these democratic institutions exist, B.) that these rights are not infringed upon, and then C.) what extent the structure of this democracy allows for consent of the governed to be given to the government, with more opportunity for consent-giving  being preferable. This is where methods of elections come in. Obviously that they are freely participated in, and fairly counted is a must. That government is only able to exist with the consent of the majority of the populace is another. So this entails a few things. Firstly that FPP elections which delivered parliamentary majorities to parties with only minority support (every election from 1954 to 1993), and to parties with less support than other parties (1978 and 1981), are less desirable than electoral systems which more accurately reflect how the electorate voted, like MMP. Secondly, that parliamentary majorities actually translate into majorities of actual the populace, i.e. that there is a wide enough franchise (so people are allowed to vote regardless of sex, race, criminal record, perhaps age?), and that they actually exercise their right to vote in almost universal numbers (compulsory voting?). It also entails that there are frequent and regular opportunities for people to give their consent, perhaps the possibility for recall elections (the removal of consent for individual parliamentarians), and binding referenda so that people have the opportunity to consent to or object to specific actions of the government. It also seems that a legislature in a representative democracy that is more representative of the populace is preferable to one that is less. So MMP, for example, which has produced MPs who are women, Māori, Asian, Islanders, disabled, and young in far greater quantities than FPP is preferable. So there we have it, keep MMP, remove the threshold, institute compulsory voting, recall elections, and binding referenda and we’ve got it, democracy. Great. Sorted. Right? Right?

Regardless of how much reality matches up with this narrative of democracy, we first have to ask how meaningful is this narrative as democracy? Is this actually a coherent or accurate picture of what democracy entails? Is this a desirable form of government? Democracy’s certainly more than just FPP, or MMP as we’ve already established. The word democracy, as we all know, is of Ancient Greek origin, derived from the words demos (the people) and kratia (rule). So it becomes eminently clear that any genuine concept of democracy must be a system that can philosophically account, in the first instance, for ‘the people’. This is when the very concept of liberal democracy descends into the absurdity of oblivion. Notice that  democracy is rule of the people. That’s the collective, and this is simply a concept that is precluded by any liberal account. At the centre of liberalism is not the ‘we’, it is the ‘me’. It is the individual, and a conception of the individual which is atomised and divisive, hence the pluralism that is so important to liberal conceptions of democracy. It posits that individuals are diametrically opposed and divided, and in doing so intensifies and prolongs any divisions, or perceived divisions. This is why ‘direct democracy’ referenda have just about universally been responsible for reactionary laws that have variously banned burqas, banned minarets, and supported the re-institution of hard labour for prisoners. In a system aimed towards the perpetuation of false divisions, rather than the realisation of commonality, unity, and coming to a collective class-consciousness, referenda will almost always serve as tools of racism, misogyny, bigotry, and demonisation of the powerless (unfortunately by the very people who are also powerless).

Certainly any concept of ‘the people’ must first rely on a concept of ‘the person’. But what the liberal fails to recognise is that the self only has meaning in the context of others. If there were no others, then there would not be anything distinct to which the ‘self’ referred. The self would simply refer to everything, and so consequently to nothing meaningful at all. It is only in relation with other persons, in the context of the collective, in recognition of unity and equal dignity, in turning outwards to the social, that the ‘self’ is realised. Hence any political system that is based on the person, must be based solely on the collective and not the individual, because recognition of the individual outside of the context of the collective simply recognises something that doesn’t exist. The individual of liberalism is not a recognition of the individual as it exists in reality, but the recognition of a representation of an individual that just doesn’t exist, just how its recognition of democracy is not recognition of an actual democracy, but representative of democracy (representative democracy). It resembles it, but isn’t it.

Democracy isn’t voting for someone to do it for you, democracy isn’t a private press, or some far removed judicial system, or a system of checks and balances. In fact, democracy isn’t at all. Democracy happens. It happens in co-operatives where workers own and control their workplaces. It happens in the family, in marriage, when two people find meaning only in the other’s existence, and become one (both in personal union, and in biological union). Democracy happens when communities, together, decide what is best for their welfare. Democracy happens when the homeless man is housed, when the hungry man is fed, when the dying man is cared for. Only in recognising the shared human dignity of all people, is the concept of the ‘person’ actualised, and is ‘the people rule’ in existence.


4 thoughts on “221, Topic 17: Elections And (Or?) Democracy

    • Haha, thanks. Well there are some parties that affirm this vision of democracy more than others. If the false liberal view of democracy doesn’t appeal, then a start could be made by not supporting a liberal party, like ACT.

  1. A great read, as usual. Excellent points are made, very colourfully. But this time you sway just a bit too far away from addressing the main issues. I can see the relationship between what you are arguing and the lecture topic, but it’s still too loose. It’s good, in my view, to elaborate a radical alternative point of view, but you still need to work harder to connect it to the mainstream issues. Yet, still an “A” post.


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