Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Representative Democracy as a Farce

by Antonio Folgore, 2012

1. Introduction

In the contemporary era, parliamentary democracy or representative democracy rules the political stage. After 1989 and the end of Cold War, the United States was able to implement its agenda uninterrupted. As a result, representative democracy began to spread globally, under the ever-watchful eye of the United States and its allies. The result is that democracy in today’s world is more oligarchy, and it will be argued that this form of rule removes the political out of the public realm and into the private. Using Jacques Ranciere as a foundation, it will be shown that contemporary parliamentary democracy is a farce in the context of ‘rule by the people’. This analysis will then be applied to both historic and contemporary examples, using Alain Badiou’s work on the Paris Commune as well as the recent mining massacre at the Lomnin Platinum mines at Marikana. The final conclusion will argue that parliamentary democracy does not automatically represent the will of the people, but rather it oppresses them, giving them a false sense of freedom under the mask of representation.

2. Jacques Ranciere and Democracy

            Ranciere is a French philosopher who has written extensively on representative democracy as a farce. Ranciere believes that representative democracy is a form of rule where a government rules over its people; and under this form “government is always exercised by the minority over the majority” (Ranciere, 2006: 52). This means that contemporary democracy is not democracy at all, but rather equates to an “oligarchic form, a representation of minorities who are entitled to take charge of public affairs” (Ranciere, 2006: 53). The effect of this is devastating to what true democracy is meant to represent, a form of rule where the people govern themselves. How then does representative democracy, as a form of oligarchy, oppress the very people it is supposed to be protecting? Ranciere believes that this occurs in two particular ways. In the first instance, representative democracy seeks to remove the “domain of public matters” (Ranciere, 2006: 57) from all forms of political decision making, achieving then the handing over of power to make important political decisions in the hands of the minority elite. Secondly, Ranciere states that once the public sphere has had its ability to participate in politics narrowed, it opens the door for “the play of institutions and the monopoly of those who work them to their advantage” (Ranciere, 2006: 57). The question then that begs answering is how does contemporary society allow such a system to exist, and Ranciere provides the answer using the power of the vote.

            Ranciere explains that the vote is not a democratic tool through which the people may make their voices heard. In fact Ranciere believes that the vote is simply a means of permission. In other words, the vote is simply an “expression of a consent that a superior power requires”  (Ranciere, 2006: 53) in order to exercise their dominance over us. Its only redeeming factor may be that it needs to be unanimous in its favoring of a particular oppressor (Ranciere, 2006: 53). Therefore, the vote is simply another means of deceiving the majority of the population into believing that they have some form of power to rule themselves effectively. By allowing the population to enter into a space that they believe to be the political, governments achieve their goal in masking representation as democracy. Yet, as Ranciere argues and I agree, Representation is in its essence not any form of democracy. Representation is the ideal platform from which we provide “the means for the elite to exercise power” (Ranciere, 2006: 53). However, Ranciere believes that it is also problematic to look at representative democracy as wholly opposed to the idea of true democracy. This is because Ranciere sees representative democracy as a “mixed form” (Ranciere, 2006: 54), through which the operation of the state is founded in the idea of the elite, but changes “little by little from its function by democratic struggle” (Ranciere, 2006: 54). In essence then, Ranciere’s core view is centered in what he calls “police logic” (Ranciere, 2006: 55). Police logic is the idea that the elites that rule from within a representative parliament “tend to shrink the public sphere, making it into its own private affair” (Ranciere, 2006: 55). In order then for true democracy to succeed, its central struggle would be against this form of “privatization, the process of enlarging this [public] sphere” (Ranciere, 2006: 54).

            I believe that Ranciere’s writings are accurate in their descriptions of contemporary ‘democracy’. The current system of rule offers very little to the majority of the population, with police logic being highly successful in removing the important political issues out of the public sphere. If one where to examine the increase in dissatisfaction around the world, as the majority of people begin to voice their concerns at the ineffectiveness of their governments, one can see a trend developing. I believe that this idea can be reinforced when one simply examines the campaigning process in representative democracy. Despite the process being inexplicably expensive, the competing parties simply debate and ridicule each other on moral issues. For example, if one were to read any number of popular news articles on the current campaign fight between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney, the issue of homosexuality and Obama’s true national identity rule the article. There is hardly any mention of the true political issues and how these will be solved, thus improving the lives of the people they are meant to represent. However, this is not a trend that is new by any means, there have been examples of how representative rule has failed the majority throughout history. This paper will examine two such examples, beginning with the 1871 Paris Commune, before using a more contemporary example of the Marikana mine massacre in 2012.

3. Alain Badiou and the Paris Commune

            The 1871 Paris Commune was an important political event, which, according to Alain Badiou, was the first and last occurrence of true democratic rule. In order to understand this point, we need to briefly outline what exactly occurred between March and May 1871. The Paris Commune arose out of conflict when the French government, wary of Prussia’s impeding threat under Bismarck, “declares war” (Badiou, 2006: 258). The French suffer a humiliating defeat, and the elite rulers immediately open negotiations with Bismarck “in a bid to contain the working-class political insurgency” (Badiou, 2006: 258-9). During these months of negotiations, the workers of Paris have been armed under what became the National Guard, in order to fend off an encroaching Bismarck (Badiou, 2006). Then on the morning of March 18 1871, the ruling party sends in military troops in an attempt to disarm the Parisian people of the cannons they possess (Badiou, 2006: 259). They are surprisingly defeated by an “impressive, spontaneous mobilization in the workers quartiers by the Parisian people” (Badiou, 2006: 260). This results on the government fleeing the city and escaping to Versailles, as they now begin to fear the significance of this rebellion. For the rest of March 1871, the Commune in Paris achieve remarkable success in the realm of politics, as for the “first time workers can be heard exchanging their appreciations on things that hitherto only philosophers had tackled” (Badiou, 2006: 261). These issues varied from women’s rights to worker’s rights, worker job satisfaction to working hours; all of these varying issues were for the first time, dealt with by the people they directly impact. Then on April 3 the Commune attempts to confront the government troops who were stationed near Paris, but they fail in their confrontation and are massacred, as the “ferocity of the repression to come fills the air” (Badiou, 2006: 260). Then finally between May 9 and 14, after limited but crucial success, the Commune falls to government forces, as tens of thousands of people are massacred (Badiou, 2006: 260-1).

            With the aforementioned in mind, one can begin to understand the relevance of Badiou’s claim that the Paris Commune should be “forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society” (Badiou, 2006: 257). There has been no other event in recorded history that, according to Badiou and in agreement with myself, has resulted in true air of democracy embracing society. The Paris Commune is the ideal example to illustrate just how ineffectual a representative can be. Although there was an official ruling government in France at the time, their defeat at the hands of Prussia resulted in this government groveling the feet of Bismarck, pleading for their own safety and protection, notably at the expense of the working class (Badiou, 2006: 259). It is for this reason that I believe that a representative or parliamentary democracy, as they exist in the contemporary era, fall short of the term democracy. Badiou’s argument illuminates this point to great affect. The success of the Paris Commune can be judged directly through its consequences. In other words, although its timeframe was short, the repercussions of its occurrence are powerful. These consequences concern themselves with how the Paris Commune broke away form the leftist view, a view that dominated the time.

            According to Badiou (2006: 272) the Left side of politics can be defined as “the set of parliamentary political personnel that proclaim that they are the only ones equipped to bear the general consequences of a singular political movement”. In other words, the Left is the view that that a group of people see themselves as the only ones equipped to apply political significance to social movements; the core essence of leftists. In essence then, the left is essentially representative democracy, hidden under the guise of social movements that will supposedly benefit all. It was this trend that dominated French politics in the late 19th century, so for the Paris Commune to break away from the “idea of a non-parliamentary politics [was seen as] a despotic sacrilege” (Badiou, 2006: 257).  The reason that this is importance, I believe, is because it typifies a sense of bravery, courage and true revolutionary belief that is required to overthrow the system operating in today’s world. If I were to begin a campaign stating that all representative governments around the world were oppressive and wrong, and thus should be disbanded by any means necessary, I would be labeled a miscreant and danger to society. In other words, just as was the case in March 1871, the idea of “a rupture with the representative form of politics” (Badiou, 2006: 289) is seen as unthinkable. It is for this reason that I believe the Paris Commune, as well as the way in which Badiou views the event, as pivotal in understanding my argument against representative democracy, and its claim to represent the will of the people. I will now show how challenging this system is beginning to take shape in the contemporary era, through the use of the recent Marikana platinum mine massacre in South Africa.

4. Marikana Massacre and Challenging the Contemporary System

            Like the Paris Commune, the recent Lomnin Mining massacre that occurred in the Marikana province of South Africa, is one in which ordinary people gave up their lives to fight a system they do not believe in. In essence then, this event is one that directly challenged representative democracy as ineffectual, and the workers involved gave up their lives for that cause. However, to begin to understand the significance of this event and how it related to representative democracy as a farce, I will use Grant Farred’s argument on Carl Schmidt’s concept of a nomos. A nomos, according to Farred (2004: 590), can be defined as “a way to understand the transformation from one historical epoch to another”. Farred uses Schmidt’s concept to explain how political activists opposing the ANC, in post-apartheid South Africa, are seen as enemies of the state just as they were in the apartheid era. The reason for this is because of the heritage the ANC carries for black South Africans. Their efforts in the apartheid struggle and the success of these efforts mean that, with no significant opposition to date, the ANC “simply has to exhibit historical patience” (Farred, 2004: 603). The result of this is a mode of repression, through which the ANC is able to label any black working-class challenger a “counterpartisan” (Farred, 2004: 599) or enemy of the state, and successfully isolate them from political activity. In essence then, Farred’s argument highlights a crucial flaw in South Africa’s so called democracy where “the anti-apartheid partisans… [are seen as] friends and enemies of both the anti-apartheid and post-apartheid states” (Farred, 2004: 604).

            The reason I have explored Farred’s argument is because I believe it can be effectively applied to the mining massacre at the Lomnin Platinum mine. The miners in Marikana were discontent with their wages and overall employment, and decided to protest against their employers based in London, as well as National Union of Mineworkers or NUM (Gibson, 2012). The union was meant to represent the miners in situations of struggle, to act as a figurehead in delivering and driving their requests. Under the constitution of South Africa’s representative democracy, these miners have the right to be represented by a union, who in turn has an obligation to these miners to act in their best interests. This was not the case however, with many of the miners complaining that NUM “seemed increasingly remote and disconnected to many rank-and-file workers” (Gibson, 2012). As a result, the striking “began as a wildcat” (Gibson, 2012) or an illegal strike. It is at this point that the ANC involved itself in the increasingly violent protest. The miners demands were not extreme either, asking for an increase from a petty R4000 salary for engaging in a dangerous, life draining, long hours mining job. The police were called in to attempt to contain the growing risk of conflict, until on August 16th 2012, a brigade of “heavily armed police opened fire on [the] striking platinum miners, killing 34 workers and injuring 78 others” (Gibson, 2012).

            The harsh reality then is in open view. As Farred stated, these miners were most likely black people fighting the apartheid system, and now they find themselves as enemies to the post-apartheid state too. South Africa’s representative democracy is essentially, in this context, the legal and “politically sanctioned police murder of 38 South Africans” (Gibson, 2012). This raises serious questions for not only South Africa’s parliamentary democracy, but also all similar systems that dominate the global political stage. If the South African system, one celebrated for its “beautiful Constitution” (Mdlalose, 2012), can massacre its own people in such a way, what fate awaits others living under more visibly oppressive governments? Therefore, going back to the aforementioned thoughts of Ranciere, these miners realized that they were being marginalized from the realm of true politics, thus not having any effective channel o vent frustration which were literally killing them slowly. Going back to the thoughts of Badiou and the massacre of 1871, these miners were killed on the foundation of “comply or be marginalized” (Naidoo, 2012). South Africa as a representative democracy, along with in my opinion most representative democracies in the contemporary era, can be described as being “in a state of ferment” (Naidoo, 2012).

            I believe that the Marikana mining massacre can be seen as the contemporary equivalent to the 1871 Paris Commune, albeit on a smaller scale. It represents a significant stand against oppression, by the common person against the ruling elite. Badiou argues that we should never forget the significance of the Paris Commune, and I believe that South Africa will never forget Marikana massacre. This incident, while tragic, offers an “opportunity for a new political narrative” (Naidoo, 2012) to begin. This is because it is a direct challenge to representative democracy and the shortcomings of such a flawed system. I would like to argue, similarly to Naidoo (2012), that the Marikana incident “was our crossroads”, and can ultimately be seen as a microcosm for a global crossroads. The final part of this essay will explore this idea from my own viewpoint and opinion.

5. Final Thoughts

In summary then, Ranciere believes that we live in a world where representative democracy is a farce, because representation seeks to remove the true political issues form the public realm and into the private. The ordinary citizen is given a false sense of democratic freedom through devices such as the vote, which make us believe that we have the ability to change the system, but in essence all the vote allows us to do is to legitimate who dominates our day-to-day lives. Therefore, in order to gain true democracy, we need to fight to widening the public realm of what is a political issue; we need to fight the privatization of politics. The 1871 Paris Commune was, according to Badiou, the first and last true instance of this fight. However, I believe that the Marikana mining massacre can be seen as a similar success story, successful not for the deaths of the miners, but rather what their bold persistence represents.

Representative democracy does not automatically represent the will of the people, if anything it automatically oppresses them. Representation is the ideal platform for a group of intellectual, rich elites to exercise domination over the majority, while at the same time hiding behind a mask of false democracy. I strongly believe in fighting to change this system, where success would be measured by our ability to create a space where, what Farred calls the counterpartisan as aforementioned, is not prosecuted as an enemy of the state. Representative or parliamentary democracy is oligarchy in its most perfect form, not any kind of democracy.

6. Conclusion
            Parliamentary democracy is an oxymoron in itself, with representation being a form of oligarchy. Global society is, for the most part, unable to remove itself from the system, with any attempts to do so being crushed by a violent state, or isolated form any significant political message. By narrowing the public realm of what is considered politically important, representative democracy effectively continuously perpetuates itself. There have been attempts such as the Paris Commune and Marikana riots where ordinary people fight to remove inadequate representation, but ultimately they do not carry enough support to be successful. Not until the global majority rise up and attempt to remove the ruling elite, will society benefit from the labor it puts in. Until then, representative democracy will continue to make the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the lie truthful.

Reference List:

1.      Badiou, A., 2006, ‘The Paris Commune: A political declaration on politics’ in Polemics, London: Verso.
2.      Farred, G., 2004, ‘Not Yet Counterpartisan: A new politics of oppositionality’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 1(4): 589-605.
3.      Gibson, N., 2012, The Marikana Massacre: A turning point for South Africa, 3 September,, Date of Access: 3 September 2012.
4.      Mdlalose, B., 2012, Marikana Shows that we are Living in a Democratic Prison, 22 August, -we-are-living.html, Date of Access: 3 September 2012.
5.      Naidoo, J., 2012, Democracy for all: Marikana signal our second chance, 31 August,, Date of Access: 3 September 2012.
6.      Ranciere, J., 2006, ‘Democracy, Republic, Representation’ in Hatred of Democracy, London: Verso.