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Tema: Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation

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    Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation

    Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation (I)

    I. Introduction

    The fact that democracy has turned into one of “modernity's myths” does not escape anyone. Even its most passionate champions (champions, that is, of their idea of what democracy means) can observe to what extent the word democracy has reached the proportions of a myth, when every day it is employed as synonym for “good” or “just”. This is a phenomenon that goes beyond political slogans. It is a semantic mix-up that confuses two unrelated categories: it means giving absolute value to a form that in itself does not contain any judgment of evaluation. Democracy is to politics, for example, what a hypothetical syllogism is to logic; that is, a kind or a sub-category. In other words, something that acts as a means or instrument that may or may not serve towards something good, is considered an end in itself, self-sufficiently good. Since language to a great degree gives structure to our thought, a linguistic aberration such as this can easily manipulate political conduct. Even the bravest cannot but shudder: we are before a myth of the size of Leviathan.

    What then, is democracy? We are certainly not short of definitions, but it is unimportant to make a repertory at this point. Some definitions might include a reference to separation of powers. Since no true separation of powers exists in any country (certainly not in the European environment, and I'm afraid it is also the case beyond), let us put it aside for now, and let us make the assumption that democracies do indeed exist. If I don't put the word democracy in quotation marks it is precisely because of the elusiveness of a definition. Therefore, I won't be referring to any particular one, but rather to democracy in its “mythological” aspect, much in the way it teems in every politician's speeches and in our everyday life. What is its most basic defining element, without which nobody would dare to say there is a democracy? Representation. Who holds representation? A parliament. How is it constituted? Through elections.

    Well, democracy, thus understood, is incompatible with true representation. And therein lies its mythical nature: man, harboring an innate and legitimate wish to live in a representative polity, has reached the obstinate conclusion that parliamentary democracy is a way, the only way, to do so. One could, intelligently and imaginatively, prove that this is false, that better ways can be conceived. But it is not necessary: history proves it. An authentically representative system is not an utopia, something to be invented. It has existed in some societies (the late Middle Ages especially stand out) or at least these societies have tended towards its perfection. Having range of political systems to choose from as wide as our minds are able to conceive, it is unacceptable to settle for the “least bad” (a phrase as pretentious as can be, repeated time and time again by the hosts of the status quo).

    Why is parliamentary democracy not representative? Because a parliament fails to be representative in both levels of its existence: 1. it fails when considered relative to the State, as a representative organ that is integrated in it, and 2. it fails when considered relative to man, to the person it says to be representing.

    1. As one of the State's institutions, as the “legislative power”, it carries out functions that are entirely alien and incompatible with a representative function. Representation implies a context of relation: one is represented before someone else, opposite or against an independent power. When that power is the “executive”, which precisely emanates from the “legislative” (this is in parliamentary systems; in presidential ones there is greater independence, but still limited since both belong to political parties), it is clearly impossible for there to be representation between two entities that are not independent from one another. If a kid in elementary school was treated unjustly by his teacher, he would want to take up his case to the principal. But, being little and defenseless and one out of many hundreds, he might ask his mother to go see the principal for him. If, somehow, a new law prohibited mothers from visiting principals and established that principals were to be named the students' representatives and take up the mothers' old function, then they would not be representatives at all, but tyrants, for they would both decide and represent. Therein lies the key. Even if the power that makes decisions is, shall we say, foreign to me, at least I will always have the assurance that I will be represented before it. If I were to choose this decision-making power, as I may do with parliament, it may now seem that the decision is made by an organ over which I hold some influence by voting its members. Nonetheless, since there is no bond of imperative mandate (through which the electors give instructions to the elected deputies that they must follow and must not exceed, thus truly making the elected a spokesperson of the concrete interests of the electors), this happens only in appearance, since ever since the moment of election said organ makes itself “independent” from me. Now, it is not undesirable at all that the organ in power be independent when it is time to make decisions, since otherwise it would be subjected to constant pressures and blackmail. However, the difference is that now, since the organ I choose to be in power calls itself representative, I surrender to it the possibility of being represented this time before parliament. I thus lose this very essential liberty. This way, the most “democratic” thing a parliamentary democracy can aspire to is to have a certain transparency in its decisions, that is, that citizens be spectators to what invariably is dictated from above (look, for example, to article 10.3 of the Treaty on European Union, which states in an involuntarily revealing manner what it really means for citizens to participate in the colossus of democracy:

    Every citizen shall have the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union. Decisions shall be taken as openly and as closely as possible to the citizen ”).

    2. In its second aspect, concerning the relation between the voter and the elected, parliament fails to be representative of society by only taking into account people as abstract individuals, devoid of all attributes, circumstances and singularities that configure them as a concrete person. It is clear that in practice nowadays in most democracies a person can't be represented by a deputy since the institution of political parties puts itself as intermediary in such a way that he only chooses a color, an ideological tendency (and one with ever less definition in our times) that, perhaps, represents him in the ideological sphere. But after all ideology is only a very small portion of someone's life and circumstance, and certainly the one portion that is least important for the State to consult him about. This way, he forgets to make himself heard as a worker, as a neighbor, as member of a family, cast under the illusion that every aspect of life is encompassed in his political tendencies. But even without institutionalized political parties, even in the most refined theory of liberal parliamentarism (without later modifications such as closed-list systems) representation is impossible, for there is no imperative mandate that maintains the bond between the represented and the representative and assures that he honors the duties entrusted to him.

    These two aspects require separate analysis in detail, which will be the objective of the following posts in this series.

    (Continues in Part II)

    Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation (I) | Firmus et Rusticus (in English)

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    Re: Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation

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    Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation (II)

    II. Parliament and State

    The preceding article started out by asserting that the idea of representation was the most central element of a democracy, without which its existence would not be justified. From there it continued by asking the following questions: can a parliamentary democracy really be a representative system? Can a parliament fulfill the requirement of being an organ of representation?

    It arrived at the conclusion, only basically outlined, that parliament by nature is incapable of exercising a truly representative function. This inherent incapacity is more sharply evidenced if both levels on which a parliament exists are considered separately: (1) in its relation with the State as one of its organs, and (2) in its relation with the people it says to represent.

    In this second article only the first aspect will be considered. Therefore, a benevolent presumption will be made by considering that according to the second aspect a parliament is a perfectly representative organ. This is to say that the elections by which voters determine how a parliament will be composed are a suitable way for society to be duly represented. It will be presumed that in parliament everybody’s interests are heard. For instance, if a law under discussion proposes to enforce strict safety measures to the timber industry, and these measures will in consequence result in artisans who make spinning tops being able to make only one instead of two every hour, I will presume that the complaints of the spinning top-makers would be heard in the country’s highest chambers. As my good reader can probably tell, today I am brimming with benevolence.

    Before considering the position that a representative organ occupies in a State’s framework, it is convenient to contextualize with some clarifications of a, shall we say, philosophical nature, though really of the most basic common sense and widely accepted:

    1st. Man, as the social being he is, tends to associate with others in order to achieve ends that he by himself would be unable to achieve. This process starts with family, and from there associations grow in size and complexity.

    2nd. Having reached a certain point an organized society needs an authority in order to resolve the conflicts that occur in every human collective. This conflict resolution is done proportionately and in keeping with with the end of each particular association (a court of arbitration does not need the power of life and death over litigants in order to accomplish its function). This authority has been held, as the human associative process has grown throughout history, by institutions ranging from the paterfamilias to the State.

    3rd. This authority is subservient to the well-being of the society it directs, to the common good. This way, society does not exist to the benefit of the authority, but rather authority exists to the benefit of society.

    4th. Though it is true that authority –considered in abstract– is teleologically (that is, according to its end or purpose) subordinated to society –considered in abstract–, it is also true that those who hold authority –in a specific moment– must be independent from those who form a society –in a specific moment–. If it were not so, as soon as the authority made a decision that was legitimate but unfavorable to a sector of society, that sector would put forward the preceding (3rd) argument in order to disobey the decision, thus rendering useless the existence of an authority .
    5th and last: Notwithstanding the independence of authority within its legitimate limits, it is just (and very useful) that those who submit to it have adequate channels for letting their opinions on matters that affect them be known. Like the boy who tells his parents that he is too tired to go to school, or the exporters of a highly competitive industry who ask for protection in their national markets. Their opinions can this way be heard, although it does not mean that the authority must be bound by them. This is the task carried out by organs of representation. As well as having this consultive function, they can also be the most effective way to ensure that the authority does not trespass its limits. This way, it is not unthinkable for law or custom to establish the compulsory nature of an agreement between the authority and the representatives for matters of the greatest importance (like establishing new taxes, one of the key sources of resisting power in medieval parliaments).

    These are premises inspired by common sense, at least in our so-called Western culture. Most constitutionalist authors recognize them. How then is it possible, keeping these premises in mind, to conceive a modern parliament as a representative organ? It isn't, for in them the “Independent Power” factor (4th) and the “Representation” factor (5th) are confused in one. Let us paint a general picture of parliamentary systems, keeping presidential ones for right after.

    The so-called executive power, which might at first glance be confused with the “Independent Power”, is formed according to the electoral result of parliament, or so-called legislative power. In general terms, there is a single election at a national level. A political party is chosen and it, in turn, names its candidates at will (in closed-list systems, this is). This party sits in parliament, and if it holds majority, it will form a government. Well then, one might say, isn't this government, once formed, independent from parliament? Not so. What is even worse, parliament is dependent on the government, because the president or prime minister of this government is -presumably- the chief of the political party that has parliamentary majority. In closed-list systems, members of parliament are appointed by the party, not by the elector. Just as they are appointed, they are also removed by the party, and therefore it can be expected that they will behave as the party wants them to. This way, the government and the parliamentary majority are usually of one mind.

    Any constitutional system that admits political parties as anything other than spontaneous associations of like-minded members of parliament, that admits parties as having any sort of authority over their members, is bound to render useless all separation of powers and any checks and balances that the constitution might provide for. Political parties are genuinely distorting elements. No matter how much internal debate a party might have, it is a “private entity of an associative base” (that's right, private!) that monopolizes the votes of its members. It is the party, not the elected deputies, him who votes in parliament.

    It is then true that government and parliamentary majority are helplessly united by the political party. Is this bad? After all, it would mean that both government and parliament together take up the function of the above-mentioned “Independent Power”, wouldn't it? It would. But then if parliament, which is supposed to be the organ of representation, is ingrained in the “Independent Power”, who holds the office of the “Representation” factor? What organ defends the interests of the people against the Power? No one. No such organ exists in a democracy.

    After all this criticism of parliamentary systems, it might look like a presidential system is the obvious answer. A technical-constitutional change might seem sufficient: make political parties be free associations of directly-elected deputies that keep their freedom of vote, and hold separate elections for parliament and for the presidency. This would mean that the United States of America would not suffer from this “democracy and false representation”. And clearly this is not so. If it is true that the U.S.A.'s system is less imperfect, something still is wrong. Parliament is still not an organ of representation within the ensemble of the State. Why not?

    Because of the theory of separation of powers. Because parliament, acting as the legislative power, carries out functions that should belong to what we have so far called “Independent Power”. Power, understood in the light of the fourth above-mentioned common-sense premise, is relative to a specific situation. This is true of political power, but not limited to it: there are many other powers lesser in magnitude but independent, because they all relate to a specific context and must behave according to the nature of that context. For instance, parents have a certain power over their children that is not based on a concession from higher powers, like the State's, but rather is independent. But it is independent in order to pursue its natural ends: raising a child to adulthood. Parents may, therefore, coerce their children to do or not to do certain things, like crossing a highway on foot. This is a limitation of their freedom, but it is not a crime of illegal detention or kidnapping, since it falls within the authority of the parent to do so. It falls within his authority because it is ordained to the achievement of the ends prescribed by the nature of the parent-child relationship. On the other hand, if a parent were to force his child into slavery, he would be abusing his power by aiming it towards something other than its nature: that is, to something other than raising him, like exploiting him for money. From this example we also gather that power is, by definition, one. It is limited by its ends, but it constitutes a unity. Just as this is applicable to lesser powers, so it is also to greater ones.

    The State (or rather the political community, the modern State being just one of its many historical manifestations, and in some way its distortion) is no exception. Its power is limited by the nature of its end -securing the common good-, but it is one. It can be delegated, but it is indivisible in its foundation. And this does not make it necessarily tyrannical. It was a mistake to believe that in the separation of the State's powers (legislative, executive and judicial) lay the best guarantee against despotism, because regardless of how many parts it is fragmented into, it can still grow unrestrainedly as a whole. The three powers might, as they all grow, balance each other out so as that one does not grow bigger than the others, but finding no extrinsic limits they can easily expand limitlessly into every corner of society. Tyranny is not avoided by dividing the State's power from within, but rather by stopping its expansion outside of its rightful limits. This task can only be carried out from the outside, by society incarnated in an institution that is representative of individual and collective interests and that retains its independence from the holder of power. In words of Juan Vázquez de Mella:

    “This way we would see that the limits of Power are not based in the internal division of Power itself. Limits are external, as all limits are; there where an independence begins, so there will some thing's limits end; they will be organic and external and will not be the artificial division of this Power separated in fractions that stand opposite to one another.”

    Concluding, an organ of Representation, in order to be an effective limit of Power, must abstain from carrying out functions belonging to it. It must curb and control a Power that is subservient to society, but that according to its nature must act independently from society (4th premise). But it must do this curbing from the outside, in the name of a society (or people, nation, etc.). Having established the role of the representative organ within the State, and having understood that a parliament in a democracy cannot even remotely play out this role, it remains to ask this question:

    What is representation? What is represented, or whom? A person, an idea, an interest? In short, what human phenomenon makes it possible -if it is indeed at all possible- for a reduced group of people to be spokespersons, before an independent Power, of all the worries of a great collective?

    The answer lies in the second level of a parliament's existence: (2) why can it not be representative when considered in relation to the voter? From now on the necessary and benevolent presumption that started out this article will be abandoned, and the object it concerned will be put to question in the next post of this series.

    Modernity's Myths: Democracy and False Representation (II) | Firmus et Rusticus (in English)

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