"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

For representative democracy

Representative democracy is over-sold. I know this because I work in a school part of the ideological state apparatus.

A number of the reasons given by the average modies teacher as to why the little darlings we have seated in front of us should trot out to vote when they are of age don't make a lot of sense.

Like, "You should vote because people died to give you this right."

The latter is true but just because some else thought something was worth dying for does not oblige us to feel the same. Otherwise we'd all be obliged to follow the religions of those who were martyred for their confession of faith.

Or, "You can change things - make your voice heard."

Individually you can't change a damn thing. Not by voting. Unless the situation arises where you're the marginal voter in a marginal constituency that swings the election one way or another. And to say the chances of this happening are slim involves no exaggeration.

Or, "You've no right to complain about what the government does if you don't vote".

As if there were no other grounds on which you could complain about the government presenting a Slaughter of the Firstborn Miscellaneous Provisions Bill before Parliament.

I was reminded of all this whilst reading Chris Dillow's objection to Libby Purves' injunction that it is, "One of the sternest responsibilities in a democracy is to vote..."

We expect too much of representative democracy - we are taught to do so; a lot of the reasons given for our participation are bullshit, so we become cynical about the whole affair.

Let's have a more limited defence that has to do with what we already know.

Historically we know that there have been a few other ways of achieving a change of government, something which surely no sane person can believe is never unnecessary?

You can wait for the monarch to die, and see their firstborn take over in hope they will be better, more benign, more gracious, more competent than the last.

Or if you are impatient, you can wish for - and if it happens, participate - in a revolution.

There can, and have been, coup d'etat as an alternative form of 'regime-change'.

These two can often follow, or pre-empt, defeat in war.

There are one or two others, which essentially involve modifications of the above and which often, although not always, include violence - which brings us to the secret of representative democracy: it is a system that allows for a change of government without the resort to blood-letting that most of the other options have historically entailed. It is a secret perhaps because it is felt this is too modest an ambition for a polity.

But it shouldn't be, at least not for anyone acquainted with human history and the human condition. For it is the glory and wisdom of representative democracy to have turned something once thought of as treason into a legitimate activity - indeed in some sense even our duty. I'm taking, of course, about opposition. Our system pays politicians to oppose whatever government happens to be in power. A facade to some; genius, if you ask me.

I prefer this world to the one I don't know, and can't know. The world of direct democracy and 'demand-revealing referenda'. Would it be a richer place? We have no way of knowing but they aren't selling it to me at all. For one thing it sounds an altogether more puritan place than the one we live in now - and whatever else I might be, I am no puritan. Chris Dillow writes:
"Isn't it irresponsible to legitimize a system which thinks "democracy" consists in no more than a choice between very similar managerialists?"
No - no it isn't. For history teaches us that we are indeed fortune to be confronted with such a choice of grey managerialists in our elections. Apart from anything else we have alternative choices. In Scotland, for example, you could always vote for the Judean People's Front. Or there's always the People's Front of Judea. Neither, of course, has any chance of winning in May, what with the 'peepul', in that enduringly frustrating way to Trots everywhere, generally preferring not to vote for those who shout loudest that they speak on their behalf. But hey, that's democracy. Churchill said it was the worst form of government, except for all the rest. One cliche I feel happy to repeat in the classroom - on account of the fact that it happens to be the truth.

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