Monday, 15 October 2012

Does parliamentary democracy automatically represent the will of the people?

by Joshua Rorke, 2012

Parliamentary, or representative, democracy has long been held as the best way to represent the will of the people and conduct democracy. Citizens of a country vote in free and fair elections for the political party that they most agreed with or best represents their political beliefs. After the elections, the most popular party carries out the will of the majority of people. If the party fails in correctly carrying out the will of the people, the citizens vote them out of power in the next election cycle, and install a more suitable party. This essay, however, disagrees with this pluralistic view of electoral politics. This essay will argue that states no longer derive their legitimacy through representing the will of the people, but rather through delivering services to the people and so they are not concerned with carrying out the will of the people. This idea draws on Trouillot’s critique of ontological categorisation in which certain people, usually of the lower classes, are not seen to have the same capacity for rational thought and agency. Those who are seen to have the capacity, generally the political elites, then formulate policies to deliver services to the passive populations and the rise of technocratic rule takes place.

This essay will argue, along with Zikode, that parliamentary democracy does not represent the will of the people. It will also use the revolving door argument and it will use Lukes’ three dimensions of power argument to show how parliamentary democracy is further undermined. Ranciere argues that parliamentary democracy has never been intended to represent the will of the people, so in its best form, parliamentary democracy certainly does not represent the will of the people automatically.   

Chatterjee argues that people have moved from being subjects to the state or monarchy to being a population instead of being citizens in a democracy (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). What this means is that people previously belonged to whatever feudal lord controlled them, but instead of being granted the various rights, responsibilities and agency of citizens, they have been put into populations that need to be provided for by the state (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Policies are then formulated by the elites to look after these population groups. The state, therefore, no longer derives its legitimacy from representing the will of the people, but rather from providing services to the passive population (Chatterjee, 2004: 34).

This is problematic because it denies the agency of the people in the “population”. Citizens are people that can partake in political matters and can influence society. Populations, however, are passive and can only be provided for, or acted upon by the state (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Foucault calls this thinking of people as populations and not citizens, governmentality, which is all about collecting information about the population in order to formulate policy and provide for the population (Chatterjee, 2004: 34). Governance has therefore become more about administrative policy than about representing the will of the people (Chatterjee, 2004: 35).

The view of people as being passive populations has not sprung up out of nowhere; it can be traced to the ontological categorisation of European thought during colonialism. Ontology is the study of being or existence and Trouillot argues that European thought during the time  of colonialism categorised humanity into different sections of what it meant to be human (Trouillot, 1995: 73). White males were at the top, or the most superior beings, and others had their specific locations within this ontological order. Black people were at the bottom. This categorisation came about, Trouillot argues, because Europeans needed a moral justification for the slave trade (Trouillot, 1995: 77). Black people were inferior to their white contemporaries and therefore could be enslaved while black slaves that misbehaved meant that they were inferior to white people (Trouillot, 1995: 77). This circular argument ensured that black people occupied the lowest rung of European ontological categorisation.

Slaves were also thought to have little or no agency. They were a passive people that could be told what to do and be acted upon by their masters. They simply would not, or could not, rebel or make any sort of intellectual contribution. This is the same viewpoint that the modern day state has of its people. People must sit back and let the experts come up with the best policies to look after them and occasionally vote for the best policy maker if they want to vote at all. People making or influencing economic policy, for example, outside of trade unions or NGOs, is rare if it exists at all. Important policies are best left to the experts who know what is best for everyone concerned. What people want, what the will of the people is, is entirely irrelevant to the governance of a country. Experts will formulate the best policies and people will simply vote for the party that can best implement them.

Contemporary examples of this can be seen in Greece, South Africa and the United States of America. In Greece, an economist was appointed to be the Prime Minister of the country. He was not even elected, he was appointed by the party that had the most votes. He did not run for election, but because the Greeks (the irrational population that could not formulate policy or make important decisions) did not want to implement the harsh measures that would pay off Greek debt, he was appointed because he had the technical expertise to run the country. He was an expert, and thus knew how bad the situation was and could do what was best for the country as a whole. The will of the people was entirely irrelevant in the running of the country.

In South Africa the situation is slightly different. There is no technocratic president, but policy is again formulated by the experts and then presented to the people. The National Planning Commission, the Trade Policy and Strategic Framework and the Industrial Policy Action Plan (while of debatable economic worth) are all certainly top-down policies created by the experts and presented to the passive people without taking into account the will of the people. Furthermore, the two main parties, the ANC and the DA, both frame the national debate in terms of service delivery. Neither even attempt to argue that they represent the will of an active citizenry; they present themselves as the most efficient deliverer of services. Vote for them and you will get a better, cheaper method of service delivery.  Again, it is all about implementing a policy upon a passive population. 

In the United States of America, it is again slightly different, but in essence the same. The choice is between one party that is pro-government intervention and policy-making, and the other that believes that the free-market will best look after the people. In both cases, it is not about representing the will of the people, but rather doing what is viewed as best for the people by technocratic experts.  Parliamentary democracy, whether in Greece, South Africa or the USA, no longer makes any claim that it represents the will of the people. It is open in saying that it does what is best for the people and that this is not necessarily what the people want.

With Trouillot’s claim about ontological categorisation filtering down into modern-day discourse, Zikode, the President of Ababhlali base’Mjondolo, a shackdweller’s movement in Kwa-Zulu Natal,  confirms several of Chatterjee’s themes and arguments. Zikode argues that by being a poor, black person in South Africa means that you are not treated as a full citizen (Zikode, 2009:11). Your views are not taken seriously and you are not treated as somebody with the capacity of full agency. A poor, black person falls into a passive population group that can be acted upon by the ‘correct policy’ of service delivery.

Zikode also argues that such policy is not generated from below, but from a top-down system where any ideas are transmitted downwards from the experts (Zikode, 2009: 11). Policy, therefore, does not correspond with the view of the people (Zikode, 2009:11). What the people want is irrelevant. In fact, Zikode argues that the parliamentary democracy we currently have in South Africa has become so distorted from representing the will of the people that the only way to truly show the will of the people is to take action outside of electoral politics (Zikode, 2009:20). It is clear then that parliamentary democracy does not represent the will of the people.

Naomi Klein writes extensively in her book The Shock Doctrine about another way in which the will of the people is being undermined in parliamentary democracies, namely the concept of the revolving door. Essentially, the revolving door describes the process whereby business leaders can move at will through a “revolving door” into the government and government employees can then move back through the door into the corporate sector. Klein does however say that the idea of a revolving door still does not quite describe the ease at which people can pass into the other sector; she suggests that it is so easy and so accepted that a better description would be an archway (Klein, 2007: 308) with there being literally no impediment to movement between the two sectors.  

Why is this a problem? How does this fit into parliamentary democracy and the will of the people? This is a problematic situation because when a politician is in government, he or she will enact policies and legislation that helps big business or even individual companies. When their political term is over, they will simply move into big business or that individual company and reap the benefits of the laws they drew up.  Politicians, therefore, do not follow the will of the people; they do what is in their own personal best interests. However, this may not be a problem for some people.

Those who believe in the neo-liberal doctrine will argue that what is good for big business and the wealthy elite is also good for the masses as the wealth of the elite will trickle down to the masses, benefiting everyone. Legislation and policy that benefits big business will increase their profit margins; with this increase in profit, businesses will hire more people, increasing employment rates and benefiting everyone. Any form of restriction on the business elites will not only hurt the elites, but also hurt everyone else down the line. Whether or not this argument is true is not the point of this essay. If it is true, it is just another example of elites formulating policy for the benefit of the passive population. Once again the will of the people is irrelevant, showing that parliamentary democracy does not represent the will of the people.

There are many examples of this revolving door or archway between government and big business. In the USA, Donald Rumsfeld, though required to resign from all businesses that had anything to do with National Defence, since he had been appointed the Defence Secretary, nonetheless refused to resign from the company that made Tamiflu (Klein, 2007: 312). Tamiflu is an anti-viral used to combat avian flu, a massive outbreak of which is undoubtedly a defence issue; the Pentagon did after all buy $58 million dollars of it during Rumsfeld’s reign (Klein, 2007: 313). When he left office, the company’s stocks had risen by 807% (Klein, 2007: 313). He clearly was not worried about the will of the people; only his own interests. Another example is Dick Cheney and Halliburton. Dick Cheney was CEO of Halliburton before becoming George W. Bush’s vice president. Halliburton is a major construction company that was awarded dozens of contracts in the rebuilding of Iraq after America’s invasion (Klein, 2007: 314). Halliburton’s stocks had risen by 300% in three years after the invasion and the war itself has been Halliburton’s single most profitable event in its history (Klein, 2007: 314). Ninety-four Bush Administration officials that pushed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Patriot Act and other national security issues are now employed in homeland security industry; an industry that they helped create (Klein, 2007:315). They were not in government to represent the will of the people; they were in government to make sure they had profitable jobs after their terms in office. Klein says that there is no longer a distinction between being in government office and working for big business; both Cheney and Rumsfeld tried their best to keep their interests in business while working for government (Klein, 2007: 313).
In South Africa, this phenomenon is even greater. There is no pretence at leaving business interests while working for the government. It is not seen as problematic except when a corrupt tender gets awarded. There are many examples of this from Helen Zille to Julius Malema. Zille owns shares in Pick n Pay while being the Premier of the Western Cape (Mail and Guardian, 2012: 1). How much influence she has over the board of directors is unclear, but she is unlikely to do anything in her premiership to hurt the profits of a company that she has shares in. After all, she does not have shares in Pick n Pay to lose money. Malema, on the other hand, saw no problem in being head of the ANC Youth League and being on the board of directors of several companies (Mail and Guardian, 2012: 1). Despite his political rhetoric, it is again unlikely that he would have adopted or pushed for any policies that hurt his own business interests. The will of the people is irrelevant to the desire for personal profit; undermining the parliamentary democracy in South Africa. 

Lukes offers a radical critique of the way power is exercised in society in his book about the three dimensions of power. In doing so, he also gives us a critique of parliamentary democracy and how it represents the will of the people. Lukes argues that the two main ways of looking at how power is exercised is not sufficient and that there is a third way in which power is exercised through society. The first way or dimension of power is the pluralist view of society (Lorenzi, 2006: 89). It is essentially the same way of thinking if one thinks that parliamentary democracy represents the will of the people. The government is an unbiased mediator between different sections of society. If there is a dispute between labour and big business about, for example, the minimum wage, government will rule in favour of one of the two and when the next dispute comes about between the two, the government will rule in favour of the other. Policy is the government’s output of all the various interest groups’ inputs. Major decisions are openly discussed in government, by the people and the various interest groups such as labour and big business (Lorenzi, 2006: 88).. In the context of this essay, government policy is the will of the people.

The second dimension of power is a critique of the first. It argues that major decisions are not made through a democratic process (Lorenzi, 2006:91). They are made behind closed doors by the elites of society without any consultation with the people. This links to Chatterjee’s argument that policies are made by technocratic elites, ignoring the will of the people. These decisions will also favour the elites of society as they are being made by the same elites. The decision to invade Iraq was not made through democratic processes and was in conflict with the will of the people who showed their discontent through massive protests. The decision also favoured the elites; Cheney and Halliburton have already been mentioned in this essay. This second dimension of power shows how parliamentary democracy has been undermined to favour the elites of society.

Lukes argues that there is a third dimension to power. He argues that society’s perceptions can be manipulated and changed (Lorenzi, 2006: 92). Important issues can be sidelined through this and just not be discussed on any level. Whether capitalism should be continued or not after the financial crisis of 2008 is not discussed by the majority of people; all discussion is how to get things back to the way they were. The media can play a key role in this shaping of the debate. If they deliberately or even innocently ask the wrong questions, then people, as well as the government, can be misled as to what the real issues are. Advertising can also influence peoples’ view on what the good life is. You will be happy if you have a nice car, nice house and latest I-pad. It does not matter that millions of people live in poverty in your country; your individualistic, consumerist lifestyle is the way to go. The will of the people can be subverted or distracted from important issues.

With the last two dimensions of power in mind, it is clear that parliamentary does not represent the will of the people. Important decisions are not made through democratic processes, but rather either by the elites, in favour of the elites behind closed doors, or they are not made at all and the people are distracted from the real issues.

Ranciere takes this argument to the next level. He does not believe that parliamentary or representative democracy has somehow been distorted over time through the move from citizens to populations, or that there has been a move from representing the will of the people to formulating the best technocratic policies for the population. While he does not dispute that technocratic policies have come to the forefront of politics, he argues that parliamentary democracy was never intended to follow the will of the people (Ranciere, 2006:53).  From its inception parliamentary democracy was all about distorting the will of the people in favour of elite rule.  He argues that democracy has never truly meant the will of the people, but has always been a term used by the elites to justify their power (Ranciere, 2006:52). Societies have been organised through oligarchies, not through representing the will of the people at all. Parliamentary democracy is and always has been a façade through which the elite maintain control. He argues that the phrase “representative democracy” was in fact an oxymoron when it first came about (Ranciere, 2006:53).

He further argues that representative democracy was not designed to account for the growth in human population levels, so parliamentary democracy has become even more a “representation of minorities who are entitled to take charge of public affairs” (Ranciere, 2006: 53). Again, elites taking charge of political affairs while the will of the people is ignored or subverted, exactly as Chatterjee has argued. Voting in electoral politics is simply the manufacturing of consent for the elites (Ranciere, 2006: 56). People may have in fact realised this. Voter turnouts in countries are notoriously low, perhaps people have realised that change cannot be brought about through the ballot box. No matter what party is in power, the will of the people will not be implemented.

Parliamentary democracy does not automatically represent the will of the people. It is in fact difficult to argue that it ever represents the will of the people, let alone automatically. States and the political elites that control them, no longer legitimate themselves by arguing that they represent the will of the people; the state’s function has become the deliverer of services to a passive population, regardless of what that population actually wants or how it wants it done. Political parties and governments no longer justify themselves through representing the will of the people, it is all about the best technocratic experts formulating and delivering policy to the people. Important decisions are not made through democratic processes, but by these elite experts, politicians or business leaders without consultation of the people at all. The insinuation of business elites into the political sphere and vice versa has further undermined parliamentary democracy. Politicians are not concerned with the will of the people, but rather with their own favourable business opportunities when they leave office. This subversion of parliamentary democracy should not come as a surprise. Since its inception, parliamentary democracy has not been about representing the will of the people; it has been about legitimating elite control over the masses. Voting is not about the will of the people; it is about manufacturing consent for this elite, oligarchic control over society.

List of References

Chatterjee, P, 2004. ‘Populations and Political Society’, The Politics of the Governed, Delhi: Permanent Black.
Klein, N, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.
Lorenzi, M, 2006. Power: A Radical View. Crossroads, Vol 6. No. 2. Date of Access: 30 August 2012.
Mail and Guardian, 2011. Cosatu to picket Helen Zille’s house over Walmart deal. 10 October, Date of Access: 21 August  2012.
Mining MX, 2010. Julius Malema linked to R250-million mine deal. 14 March. Date of Acces: 21 August 2012.
Ranciere, J, 2006. ‘Democracy, Republic, Representation’, Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso.
Trouillot, M, 1995. ‘An Unthinkable History’, Silencing the Past, Boston: Beacon Press.
Zikode, S, 2009. To Resist all Degradations and Divisions. Course Reader