Monday, 19 April 2010

Locke, Rousseau and the Democratic Deficit.

In his Second Treatise of Civil Government, John Locke suggests that:

‘Whensoever [the legislative transgresses fundamental rules of society] and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people, by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to assume their original liberty, and by the establishment of the new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own security….’

Whether the current ‘legislative’ has transgressed fundamental rules of society, is, perhaps, open to debate (although the expenses scandal provides quite a damning case), but I think it’s fair to say that there is a growing number of people who feel that it, at the very least, has usurped many of the fundamental principles of our ‘democracy’, and that accordingly, conditions are right for a more accountable governmental system.

The thing is though, I don’t see it happening.

Sure, it’s election season, and we’ve been thrown our ‘you decide’ bone, but, realistically, what can we hope to decide in our current, ‘system’?

A system where ‘infrequent elections in conjunction with a competitive party system puts a positive premium on deceiving and manipulating the public, by altering policy in the run up to an election…..then imposing unpopular measures immediately afterward when elections are far away’!?

The answer, I’m afraid, is probably not much.

In our present FPTP system, with it’s safe seats, parachuted candidates, and underlying party system with whips, corporate backing and media cohorts, we’re all pretty much banging our heads against a brick wall anyway.

This election will, I suspect (and I’m willing to take bets with anyone on this) involve the usual amount of vague national issues, dog-whistle politics, and, particularly in ‘marginal seats’, some candidate throwing out a few local issues that their researches were kind enough to look up for them.

This is, of course, a tactic endorsed and heavily tested back at party HQ, where it was mostly funded by some corporation or other (and possibly, with all three parties having been funded by the same corporation), ensuring that said ‘local issue’ is presented in manner x, y, or z, which ultimately benefits this corporation in some way or another.

Jean Jacques Rousseau warned, in his ‘Social Contract’, that ‘Nothing is more dangerous in public affairs than the influence of private interests’ and stated that this would inevitably result in the corruption of the legislator.

So erm, another tick there then, I reckon.
Because, when we look at it, when we really ask who benefits from the current system, it certainly doesn’t seem to be anybody other than them, right!?

Finally, Rousseau, in a similar vein, wrote that ‘the peoples deputies are not, and could not be, its representatives; they are merely its agents...... ‘the moment a people adopts representatives it is no longer free; it no longer exists’ .

Well, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt on this one. I certainly think that once we have ‘adopted’ our representatives, we cease to exist on any practical level.

Indeed, once our MP’s have touched base on the campaign trail, they’re off for another five years, backing the aforementioned corporate interests, because, you know, they’re all so close, and therefore harder to forget than ‘them funny little constituency people that talk all funny and that’!

Because, even if we were lucky enough to vote in a marginal constituency, and even if that MP makes a promise to do something about that issue, and even if they do get elected, the chances of that issue making it past the realities of corporate influence/party discipline are so small as to be laughable.

So what am I saying, what am I calling for?
To be honest, I’m not sure.

I think though, that when a political campaign openly uses ‘vote x, but get y’ as a legitimate strategy, we’re some way beyond f@cked. And, perhaps, merely acknowledging that is a start, and getting angry about it a further step in the right direction.

I also suspect that voter apathy is a severe obstacle to reform, but one that is probably caused by the above, and, whether by design or luck, this has created a catch-22, a self-reinforcing democratic deficit that we have becoming increasingly powerless to overcome.
(I also suspect that, should I urge people to look into what Rousseau and Locke had to say on this subject, most people would immediately think I was talking about the characters on the telly from ‘Lost’!).

I guess, what I really want are some ideas, and any would be gratefully received, because, as Rousseau also noted:

‘ Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium’ – Better freedom with danger than peace with slavery’


  1. James

    I can't say i have any bright ideas but have a look at that IPPR report I linked to on the UT - it's really interesting.

  2. btw - are the photos yours, they're beautiful?

  3. The 'voter index' thingy really surprised me - just how little power most of us had when we checked in. Am still bewildered how a constituency that in council terms looks v plural can be 'ultra safe' when it comes to the MP.

    The bump for Clegg could be a poisoned chalice - given the needy newsies, the backlash in media terms has already started (as well as Labour and Tories suddenly realising it might be an idea to read the LibDem manifesto).

    The 'vote x get y' thing is an attempt to scare people - but strangely, polls suggest that people aren't as scared by the prospect of a hung parliament as te pols thought they would be - this could be because of experiences in Scotland, the rest of the EU, and a more adult approach to it - it could also be that they don't remember the last time and don't fully understand what a hung parliament is. Either way - that bit of fear-mongering doesn't appear to be working.

    The polls suggesting that given the LibDem's vague parity in %vote terms could result in a seat majority for Labour is the one that will really scare people away from the LibDems, I think.

    But all of this is negative. Under FPTP it is very very rare to cast a meaningful positive vote - it's about 'keeping the other guy out' or 'not handing it to X'. And that's just depressing.

    And they wonder why people feel disenfranchised. It's because we are disenfranchised, Sherlock.


  4. Sheff,

    I was just reading that link when you posted.
    I think it's very interesting, and ultimately, points out what can happen when the system fails to engage or 'represent' like it should. Definitely should be seen as more evidence for a rapid and effective overhaul of the system, before it's too late.

    Also, I owe you a big thank you, because it was your mentioning of J-JR that prompted me to look into this again.

    (Finally, the pictures are mine - memories of home for when things get a bit too much here...)

  5. Philippa,

    My next post, if I get around to it, will probably be about multi-party governance, but I agree, it's not necessarily such a scary prospect, perhaps quite the opposite.

    I also agree entirely that 'negative' voting is an extremely depressing situation, but it seems to be increasingly common, not least because of the 'wasted vote' crap that the system produces, and that both of the big two actually try to use to their advantage.

    "And they wonder why people feel disenfranchised. It's because we are disenfranchised, Sherlock".

    Brilliant!! Wish I'd thought of that line...

  6. James,

    good article. Rousseau has been criticised by Conservative thinkers from Burke to JL Talmon. Burke criticised Rousseau for codifying the 'artificial' constructs of state which in his eyes led directly to Robespierre's sans culottist Democratic Terror.

    J.L Talmon criticised Rousseau for his concept of 'general will' which in Talmon's view led directly to 20th Century 'Totalitarain Democracy'.

    Both spurious views, but views which have dominated subsequent discussions on Rousseau's writings.

  7. Cheers Duke,

    I did have to wade through a lot of the criticism of Rousseau at Uni, and I do remember that much of it seemed quite 'reactionary' and ill-thought out.

    I don't necessarily agree with everything he said, naturally, but for someone writing in the 'really old days', he seemed to have been quite prescient on a number of things.