Friday, 17 February 2012

Democracy as a revolutionary Ideal.

In the work of Rousseau there is a tension between the democratic conception of general will as what the citizens of the state have decided together and the transcendental conception where general will is the incarnation of the citizens' common interest in abstraction from what any of them actually want. We might simply designate this as the tension as between the democratic and the vanguardist. The latter could be taken as a precursor to the Leninist response to the question "What is to be done?" But the former does not belong to any liberal monopoly as Marx took the state as a product of class antagonisms and a tool of domination rather than democratic governance. For the reason that the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, inequalities and injustice are concealed behind a veil of formal equality, freedom and rights. The elections are free with a plurality of choices for a voter. But there is no standard of these choices, they could all be the same. Then there is the cynicism which opens up a gap between what people want and the votes they cast. This is more like really existing democracy than anything like the ideal itself.

In one instance, Rousseau lays down a criterion to which no existing state can legitimate itself and only through the transformation of these states can they come closer to the ideal. This is where Rousseau corresponds with the anarchist tradition. The legitimacy of the state is grounded on the right conditions and right procedures whereby citizen legislators converge on laws which correlate with the common interest. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Rousseau favoured an elective aristocracy as the best kind of government. Funnily enough, the elective aristocracy simultaneously has characteristics which overlap with those of the revolutionary vanguard and really existing democracy. It is an elected class which imposes and enforces the law, not much different from an administration really. We might see this as a bourgeois aspect of Rousseauian thought, but we could also see it as the eternal return of the same after a revolutionary break with the past. We should note that the structures of representation were few and limited in Rousseau's life time. He was dreaming of something that had not been seen since Ancient Greece.

It isn't much talked about the Greek experiment with participatory democracy came about after a long struggle which finally tipped in the favour of small farmers after the advent of iron-based equipment. The landowners had sought expansion through debt-bondage, which ensnared small farmers into arrangements that would leave them without land or freedom if they could not repay the loan. At the time iron was in abundance and the production process was simple to master, so it became very easy to produce iron weapons in Greece. The small farmers could then form militias, with the peasants serving as infantry and rowers on warships. The aristocracy had long had the monopoly on violence because it had held onto bronze. The convergence of such forces led to a series of popular uprisings which brought down a dictatorship and the successive aristocracy before going on to defeat the Spartans who intervened on the side of the aristocrats against the uprising. The radical democracy practiced in Athens was to last for almost two centuries.

The vision laid out in The Social Contract precedes the split between communist and anarchist thought. We find that this egalitarian vision seems to presuppose the abolition of the existing order at the time of which Rousseau was writing. Rousseau may not have seen the necessity of an intermediary phase of development before this kind of social order could be established. Moral freedom as non-subjection presupposes the elimination of dependency, whereby the individual becomes autonomous and can submit to a self-prescribed order. The attainment of civil freedom precedes this, it is the freedom guaranteed by its limits set by the general will. Out of this emerges moral freedom as a bi-product rather than the end goal of the established order. The general will being composed of our true interests, which means that our individual will slots into it and we remain autonomous. This could be interpreted as a kind of enlightened egoism, we pay taxes in order to maintain systems from which we all benefit and thereby we can go about our individual pursuits.

This could presuppose a democratic system insofar as it seems to lead us to the view that the citizenry should be bound by the laws which they participated in making. It wouldn't necessarily be so if we take the general will to be the abstraction of class interests from the class unconscious. It may be that the general will is initially the transcendental vanguard before it evolves into the democratic conception. The Rousseauian parallel being the transition from civil to moral freedom, though this is no teleology as the civil does not give way to the moral for the sake of it. Not like where socialism undoes itself in order to establish communism. The abolition of the existing order of things seems necessary to break apart the subjection of workers to dependency on capitalists. The working-class are rinsed of all value by capitalists and in return receive a small portion of the overall profits to live on. The capitalist class can discard people at whim, but they ultimately need people to squeeze dry. The breakdown of the dependency of the rich on the poor and the poor on the rich seems to be in accordance with the idea of communism in Capital - where Marx writes of communism as the rule of the associated producers. 

We can see the differences with Rousseau's vision and the really existing democracies in which we live. It seems utopian and potentially totalitarian to us. Opposition to the framework itself would not be tolerated for the reason that it would undermine the entire framework. But this is true of a liberal democracy, the entire structure cannot be undermined by opposition to the fundamentals of capitalism. There is opposition to the extent that the system can extend itself into, the competition of parties just embody the contours of interests amongst the ruling-class. You can't simply establish a competing social order from within a liberal society. Unlike in the liberal framework there is no exception for an exploitative minority or exploited majority. The exception might only be implicit, as the space carved out for slavery was by the "natural inferiority" of slaves accepted at the time. Equality and freedom were for a specific set of men. This is where the other exception comes in less implicit form, JS Mill wrote of the 'tyranny of the majority' in defence of the forms of subjection which Rousseau wanted to eliminate.

In a rare discussion on Newsnight in 2010 about socialism Tony Benn praised democracy as the most revolutionary idea of all. The reasoning being that it is a way for working-class people to participate in the decisions which have long been monopolised by the rich and the powerful. This huge concentration of economic power exists outside of the formal structures of Parliamentary democracy has to be fought against. This is the reason that Bennism - if it can described as a coherent set of ideas - is a blended mix of democratic socialism and syndicalism. The role of the trade union in the building of workers' control of the means of production in gradual democratic steps rather than the revolutionary seizure. So the ballot box becomes a part of an arsenal of weapons that the working-class can reach for in the battle to emancipate itself. The radical democracy proposed by Benn and others may not pose as a sufficiently practical alternative to the representative model of advanced capitalist societies. But it remains a cutting tool of critique in a time ripe for change.