Sunday, July 04, 2010

Guest Post: The limits of sham democracy

The next in this series of guest posts comes from my cousin Graham Jepps, who's working for socialism north of Watford, in Scotland in fact. The plan is to have one Jepps bringing down the government in every nation on Earth, a bit like a local franchise operation but with a more liberal use of the term reification. Graham argues that reforms to our democratic system can never really give us democracy.

Electoral reform is a shibboleth of middle class liberalism, a chimera which will give us the illusion of wider enfranchisement while in reality securing the status quo.

The belief that reforms can work is founded on a confusion between power and permission. Improvements in civil rights and in living and working conditions in the last few decades, as welcome and necessary as they have been, have been mistaken for empowerment when they are in fact merely a widening of tolerance.

We have greater equality of pay, of opportunity, of rights, but the granting of these permissions neither decreases the actual power of the person or persons granting them nor increases the power of those receiving them. In other words, the status quo has been maintained and strengthened by virtue of the passive acceptance of those whose permissions have been increased, in the belief that they have secured a distribution of the power franchise. As Peter Hallward has said, "...modern forms of power do not primarily exclude or prohibit but rather modulate, guide or enhance the behaviour and norms conducive to the status quo...".¹ Make the malcontents happier by making their life a bit easier and allow them to imagine that they have power and influence and you restore order and government can carry on its dirty business unmolested.

If one wants a measure of the government's attitude to empowerment of the people one need look no further than Michael Gove's ridiculous assertion that we are all more empowered today because of the Sky Plus box, which apparently frees us from the tyranny of the programme schedulers. Yes, Gove did actually say that that was a form of empowerment. (As unbelievably vacuous a remark that this was, it was even more remarkable that the journalist interviewing him did not rip him to shreds for having said it. But the quality of modern journalism is another matter for another rant).

In the words of Alain Badiou, "Parliamentary politics as practised today does not in any way consist of setting objectives inspired by principles and of inventing the means to attain them. It consists of turning the spectacle of the economy into the object of an apathetic public consensus. The possibilities whose development it pretends to organize are in reality circumscribed and annulled, in advance, by the external neutrality of the economic referent - in such a way that subjectivity in general is inevitably dragged down into a kind of belligerent impotence, the emptiness of which is filled by elections and the sound-bites of party leaders." ²

In other words, the fetishization of the markets informs government policy. Note how any reporting of government policy is followed by a report on the reaction of the markets. The sham of democracy allows this situation to continue, regardless of whether we consider the democracy we have to be merely the illusory manifestation of class domination or a distortion of true democracy.

If we want a workable representative system we will have to dismantle completely the existing structure and rebuild it from scratch.³ We must become more involved in politics at a local community level and in the workplace and be far more radical and forward thinking in our political engagement. In short, we must shake off the soporific apathy which consumerism fosters and start to think seriously about the future of human society. One thing is for sure, we can't entrust it to those currently in power.

Electoral reform, in whatever form it takes, will give people the illusion that they have more power over their leaders, while allowing those who really have the power to validate their position with the faux humility of having "listened to the people". The people speak, but only when they are spoken to, and they only say what the system wishes them to say. It is increasingly true that, as Paul Weller so succinctly put it, "the public wants what the public gets." Parliamentary and electoral reform will neither enfranchise nor empower anyone except those already in power.

Anything which reinforces in the minds of the venal incompetents in government the idea that they have a mandate must be avoided at all costs.


  1. Quoted in Slavoj Žižek First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, Verso, 2009.
  2. Alain Badiou, Ethics, Verso, 2001.
  3. It will be noted that a small, dedicated and enterprising group of proto-revolutionaries did in fact attempt to do this literally in 1605. While of course I would not advocate such extreme measures I would say that neo-gothic architecture is not to my taste and the Palace of Westminster being a particularly revolting example of the style would not be at all missed.

1 comment:

Derek Wall said...

well yes but it would be nice to have it a little bit less sham....the whole thing needs an over haul, PR doesn't solve all are problems but even PR doesn't seem to be on the agenda with the AV referendum.