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Explaining democracy (crosspost)

February 26th, 2013

Crooked Timber recently ran a book event on The Priority of Dem>ocracy by Knight and Johnson, which produced a lot of interesting discussion about various kinds of arguments in favor of democracy. I’d like to look at a couple of related questions: why does (representative) democracy exist, and why has it become the dominant form of government in the modern world? Here’s a two-part explanation, which doesn’t invoke any ideal theory or even much of a pragmatic case that democracy will produce good policies.

(A) Representative government, with elections and a party system is attractive to those competing for political power because it provides a peaceful way of displacing one set of rulers with another, and gives the losers the knowledge they will always have another chance. It’s stable because it provides a set of rules for succession that (nearly) always work

(ii) Representative systems tend naturally to universal suffrage, since both those who gain the suffrage and one faction of the existing electorate will always benefit from extension

An obvious question on (i) is why representative government took so long to emerge. I have some ideas but I’ll leave it to commenters to discuss if you want.

If the explanation I’ve given works to explain the existence and survival of representative democracy, it doesn’t say much about the character of that democracy. It’s obviously consistent with a duopoly made up of two more-or-less similar factions in an oligarchic ruling class, but it doesn’t preclude versions closer to the ideal where representatives actually represent their constituents.

I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist, so I won’t be surprised to learn that these thoughts are wholly unoriginal. But they seem to have some bearing on our recent discussion, and not to have been raised there, so I’m opening up to others.

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  1. TerjeP
    February 26th, 2013 at 05:59 | #1

    Succession by violence and/or by birth seems to have worked for much of history. Why the sudden change? I think part of the puzzle is revealed by looking at why monarchs choose to create parliaments in the first place. And also by why the system had sufficient stability to evolve rather than be displaced by outside forces.

  2. Ikonoclast
    February 26th, 2013 at 08:56 | #2

    More interesting to me, at the current historical juncture, is the question why democratic representative government is now relatively ineffectual in terms of implementing the will of the majority of the people. We have to note, for example, that the majority of Australians and Britons were against involvement in the Iraq War 2 and yet both nations entered that war (based on a blatantly obvious set of lies one might add). Subsequently, it was shown that both major parties in practice supported continued involvement in that war. Thus democratically changing the government had no effect on the war policy.

    We also have to note European economic austerity policy where the majority of voters in countries like Greece and Spain do not want austerity policies and yet they have them rammed down their throats by unresponsive governments and unrepresenative econocrats in the EU and IMF. Neoliberal economics, the oligarchic duopoly and corporate capital have effectively hijacked and suborned real representative democracy. The essential problem is that capitalism is anti-democratic. I am amazed that few on this blog ever consider this issue. How is the ability to co-opt and coerce labour (by the ownership of capital) in any way democratic? How is a society democratic when people get to vote once every three or four years but go to work every day in undemocratic workplaces which are corporate autocracies?

    In my lifetime I have worked in gravel pits, mines and quarries, on earth moving machinery, in a fibro factory (asbestos), on farms and in a bank. I have not been a cloistered academic. I know what I am talking about when I say true democracy does not and cannot exist under the exploitative economic system of capitalism. It cannot exist while there is no workplace democracy. It cannot exist when non-producing owners steal part of the value of the worker’s product.

    Until people realise representative democracy is faux democracy without economic democracy, worker democracy and workplace demcracy we will get absolutely nowhere in the battle to develop true democracy.

  3. Chris Warren
    February 26th, 2013 at 09:03 | #3

    So why did the American parliament carpet bomb Vietnam and Iraq to displace one system that had sufficient stability and replace it with one that was less stable?

    Why did the American parliament subvert Afghanistan and Chile?

    You cannot have a political democracy if you have an undemocratic economy. Undemocratic economy will, in general, construct a false democracy. The quality of suffrage and electoral processes is a key issue.

    Other problems are: participation, institutions, information availability and affordability.

    Universal suffrage does not really exist in the UK and USA although reforms such as to House of Lords (UK) and motor voter (USA) may have improved things lately.

    Australia has universal suffrage but only by accident. Earlier, when unions were able to amass large voting blocks, capitalists demanded universal suffrage to block union dominance of polls.

    The level of literacy and education in the population is also a relevant factor.

    How can you ever have a democratic society if society is dominated by undemocratic commerce?

  4. Newtownian
    February 26th, 2013 at 09:04 | #4

    Regarding why representative democracy exists in the modern world – perhaps it arose by a kind of natural selection in response to the needs of the empires that emerged and dominated Europe in 1800s.

    At this time high technology combined with an economic system which promoted its development, gave armies a system (not just weapons but also food supply, medicine/hygiene, mechanical engineering, transport, planning, psychology) which was much more effective than those of the older traditional empires (e.g. Chinese, Ottoman). But the existence of the western system depended on a much more educated working and middle class who also had a stake in the whole process via civic patriotism and material spin-offs. These empires also had to compete with one another and the United States and later on had to combat the terror of socialism – that the ruling classes would be completely supplanted if they didnt do bit of material redistribution.

    The Nazi, current PRC and Napoleonic states suggest the maintenance of democracy though is not paramount once the leap to an urban advanced economy has been achieved as evidenced by the ‘logical’ replacement of an elected leadership in Italy by a ‘technocrat’ without a blink from the mainstream press.

    I believe the recently late Eric Hobsbawm had a lot of thoughts on this question of how political systems have evolved since 1789 but I havent read his ‘Age of” series for a while. Maybe someone else has and can outline his thoughts on this question.

    Separately I’m surprised by this comment “I’m an econ-blogger, not a political theorist” (JQ). What is the history of this idea that economics is politics free which this comment sort of suggests and which has always been disputed by the old Marxists and Anarcho-syndicalists.

  5. Katz
    February 26th, 2013 at 09:49 | #5

    This is an historical question. As such it is imperative to propose a place and a date when it can with confidence be said representative democracy first came into existence as a system of government.

  6. Chris Warren
    February 26th, 2013 at 11:08 | #6

    @Katz

    Making things “imperative” is a bit dogmatic. The issue is more complex.

    What happens if the answer is “never”.

  7. February 26th, 2013 at 11:17 | #7

    I’m also not a political scientist but Democracy SEEMS to be effective in its process of selecting the least harmful government as perceived by the majority of the voters. The important issue here is the perception of the voters rather than the actual effects of policy or goals of the parties competing for the government. This perception can well be right or wrong but it depends heavily on the quality of information on the policies and goals of the political parties; the knowledge of the voters to understand the effects of the policy and goals of the political parties; and the ability of the voters to make “rational judgement” from the information.

    First the quality of information of policies and goals of the political parties are not always balanced and not always in a good quality in the current Western democractic societies (e.g. Australia and US). Take the recent example from US, which the Republican Party relied so much on the magic hysteresis on their so called closing loopholes which they claim it will achieve a budget surplus. Their claims were only falsified months after, by reputable organisation such as the CBO, to add to that, some political organisations, magazines and newspapers still upheld their plan as responsible. Australia maybe better (?), but we’ll have to wait and see how much does the Coalition’s budget gets analysed and how long before the election date that happens. *I would also like to know the details of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement, or better, have a say on whether if we want it or not*

    Second, the knowledge of the voters in understanding the effects of policy is also very important if the democracy is to function effectively. Right now we have this situation where it seems that voters will punish political party for doing the right thing (stimulus and budget deficits) but will reward them for doing the wrong thing (austerity and pursuing budget surplus in unsuitable economic conditions). This have huge effects on the perception of the political party on which party is the least worst for the voters (as this is how a lot of people vote in elections now).

    Lastly, the voters need to be able to make “rational judgements”. Say, a decision needs to be made which requires trade off such as addressing climate change, the voters should at least make the decision to read or know more about the issue before making a judgement simply based on emotions and personal benefits (e.g. Catallaxy and fossil fuel industry).

    Not all voters have the same interest in a society, however there are people out there voting based on wrong perceptions about the political parties because the above three conditions were hardly ever met. If voters gets wrong perceptions about political parties competing for government its hardly possible to vote in a party that best represents the voters. That is, I have not emphasised on why voters having to choose between the least worst of the political parties is one of the major signs on the ineffectiveness of the current Western Democracies in choosing a government that best represents the voters.

    P.S. I am a social democrat but I also understand Winston Churchill’s quote “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

  8. crocodile
    February 26th, 2013 at 11:22 | #8

    @TerjeP

    Very observant Terje. I think the change was not that sudden though, but probably brought about by the decline of feudalism. Entire books have been written on this subject alone. Parliaments have been around for a long time. The feudal monarchs needed them as their empires expanded without a network of bureaucracy to support these expansions and decentralisations. Obviously, the way in which the parliamentry members are chosen has changed over the centuries.

  9. Katz
    February 26th, 2013 at 12:21 | #9

    Chris Warren :
    @Katz
    Making things “imperative” is a bit dogmatic. The issue is more complex.
    What happens if the answer is “never”.

    That is an answer which precludes further discussion. But it is a question that it is imperative not to beg.

  10. Andrew
    February 26th, 2013 at 13:30 | #10

    According to Barrington Moore, who always to me seemed to provide the best explanation, capitalism basically created parliamentary democracy. This is easiest to see in England, where competition between the two different upper classes (the bourgeois and the bankrupt Downton aristocrats) led to a series of nasty wars. So the bourgeois were let in on the game to stop the shooting. Proper democracy was only allowed after the very large middle class were put into cities, creating conditions ripe for revolution. The solution: create a false consciousness of meaningful involvement in politics by letting everybody vote in elections.

    The lesson is that, unless you give people a useful non-violent means of engaging with politics, they’ll use the violent means.

  11. Chris Warren
    February 26th, 2013 at 14:23 | #11

    Andrew

    While the development of political institutions in the UK was certainly driven by competition between two different upper classes, parliamentary democracy was not the result.

    The result was a whole series of famous ‘rotton boroughs’, the exact opposite of parliamentry democracy. The upper classes then both resisted all attempts to democratise parliament right into the 21st century.

  12. Katz
    February 26th, 2013 at 15:07 | #12

    The institution of parliament was old long before it became a contest between two upper class factions.

    This development did not occur until the 1670s, driven by religious rather than economic disputes.

  13. iain
    February 26th, 2013 at 15:36 | #13

    “false consciousness of meaningful involvement”… nice phrase… this is one reason why people don’t vote for the Senator Online party.

  14. Fran Barlow
    February 26th, 2013 at 16:16 | #14

    @Tom

    Democracy SEEMS to be effective in its process of selecting the least harmful government as perceived by the majority of the voters.

    That’s not the central mission of democracy. ‘Democracy’ (as opposed to what we have now) is supposed to be a meaningful manifestation of well-informed popular sentiment amongst those with standing to govern. Government is, after all, a mere proxy designed to allow for effective, efficient and bona fide governance notwithstanding the impractibility of having large, intellectually, culturally and ethnically diverse, spatially scattered people speaking up for themselves. One can easily understand why representative government emerged. The logistics of the task spoke against democracy, there were privileged stakeholders wanting lawful decisions, most people were illiterate and innumerate anyway.

    Of course today proportionately far fewer people in the advanced world are illiterate and innumerate, and almost every adult has ready access to the internet and mobile technology. What is absent is a willingness of the privileged classes to step back.

    Of course, not the least of the functions of a democracy is to foster authentic community and engage in a form of andragogy. Not only does our system not teach any adult anything useful about the constraints and imperatives associated with governance — to the extent that the system addresses these questions at all, it mystifies them and urges passivity. Outsource your thinking to us, says the political class, as well they might.

    What we have instead is a narrow and sterile piece of theatre associated with governance usages involving afew hundred MPs, the wealthiest people in the country (and sometimes out of it) and the people who pass loosely as ‘journalists’.

    The system as configured is corrosive of democracy in any meaningful sense — and from the POV of the wealthy and well-connected — that’s no bad thing.

  15. ratee
    February 26th, 2013 at 16:28 | #15

    Representative democracy is the perfect cover to maintain a ruling elite of like-minded people, capitalists. Broad popularist democracy exists through the translation of capitalist wealth into political power through funding the supposed antagonists within the democracy.
    The labour parties were the best defence of capitalism as they got the workers onside with an inherent view that the existence of the capitalist system enabled a better welfare outcome for the majority than other proposed systems. If only that re-distribution was efficiently and fairly managed.
    I take some cues from Max Weber and suggest that the ruling elite evolved from using a faith based rationale of an “aristocracy inherited from god” to a system where the evidence of divine support comes with monetary success. This was made necessary due to the rise of the industrial society where the clear evidence that birth did not guarantee divine support.
    Thus the system evolved an automatic maintenance mechanism of renewal through self-selection of the rulers and “popular” selection of their political agents.

  16. El Poppin
    February 26th, 2013 at 16:46 | #16

    From my scant reading of European history some form of representative government have always existed although not simultaneously across the continent. So from the ancient Greek democracies, the Roman Republic with its senate, later the Viking Thing, the democracies of the low countries (modern day Netherlands), the Saxony Elector and so on. Of course the British Parliament emerged from the Magna Carta.
    Granted that these were not representative of the population at large which were excluded but even prior to the French Revolution one of the Three Estates were reserved for the people.
    So the idea however vague was around. For me the question becomes one of extending the suffrage to include all adults which is what eventuated during the 19th and 20th century, and the removal of hereditary or purchased privileges.
    Why did it take so long to emerge? My two bobs worth is that literacy became more widespread, books and pamphlets became cheaper, industrialisation increased the size of towns and cities so that they became large enough to create political and social movements. And communications and commerce spread the word.
    Orwell wrote an essay where he discusses the demise of competent aristocrats to run the British empire enabling lower rung administrators to emerge as a form of meritocracy.
    Problem with the above is why didn’t this occur universally? After all the Ottoman empire stagnated, as did the Chinese, the Indian Rajahs and even the Japanese empire suffered from sclerotic administrations.

  17. TerjeP
    February 26th, 2013 at 17:43 | #17

    Fran didn’t mention sortition so let me throw it into the mix. A represenatatives number of citizens called a parliament need not be determined by voting in elections. Sortition would arguably achieve a more representative system.

  18. Mike Smith
    February 26th, 2013 at 18:05 | #18

    John Keane’s (long, heavy, in places heavy-going, pretty comprehensive) “Life and Death of Democracy” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_and_Death_of_Democracy covers some of this, including its history, flaws, good points and future

  19. alfred venison
    February 26th, 2013 at 18:49 | #19

    mass representative democracy was brought into focus in modern time & not earlier by the sense of nationality – nationalism – and the printing press. for the one i align with eric hobsbawm, for the other with harold innis, and overall with elie kedourie, in that nationalism is a phenomenon of modernity. -a.v.

  20. hc
    February 26th, 2013 at 19:24 | #20

    Analytically democracy came about as a solution to the Hobbesian “brutishness of man” Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. Its a less costly way (in terms of blood and tyranny) of getting us all to behave ourselves, to our mutual advantage, than installing an all-powerful Hobbesian dictator. Maybe that explanation is consistent with your (i), (ii) above.

  21. Jim Rose
    February 26th, 2013 at 19:49 | #21

    Roger Congleton in Perfecting Parliament: Constitutional Reform, Liberalism, and the Rise of Western Democracy. 2011 provides a non-revolutionary theory of the emergence of democracy.

    He explains how the franchise slowing became universal without any threat of revolution through cooption and constitutional exchange.

    The reforms that led to democracy were from within the normal constitutional processes rather that from the streets. Politically and economically powerful men and women voluntarily supported such reforms.

    Congleton discusses the emergence of democracy in England and the rest of northern Europe, the USA and Japan as a process of slow and peaceful cooption for mutual benefit.

  22. Mel
    February 26th, 2013 at 20:29 | #22

    Ikono: “The essential problem is that capitalism is anti-democratic. I am amazed that few on this blog ever consider this issue. How is the ability to co-opt and coerce labour (by the ownership of capital) in any way democratic? How is a society democratic when people get to vote once every three or four years but go to work every day in undemocratic workplaces which are corporate autocracies?”

    I’m not aware of any law that prevents workers organising themselves into democratic productive units and competing in the marketplace with capitalist firms. Self employment is another option.

    Barlow: “‘Democracy’ (as opposed to what we have now) is supposed to be a meaningful manifestation of well-informed popular sentiment amongst those with standing to govern.”

    Another flight of fancy not dissimilar to Ikono’s rant.

    It is silly to assume that ordinary people want to spend a large part of their waking hours becoming “well-informed” and actively engaging in the tedium of democratic decision making. It is entirely rational for citizen X, whose influence on broader political outcomes is always likely to be a barely visible flyspeck, to instead devote his or her time to more fructuous pursuits, such as mastering the idiosyncracies of the 3-valved flugelhorn.

  23. Mel
    February 26th, 2013 at 20:38 | #23

    Nonetheless, despite my above comments, I nonetheless think our democracy, and more so American democracy, is really “plutocracy with democratic characteristics”. Not great, but far better than the alternatives offered by the revolutionary left.

  24. Jordan
    February 26th, 2013 at 21:33 | #24

    “is why representative government took so long to emerge?”

    Representative government can exist only trough imposing taxes. It took a long developement of money as debt to reach understanding of the world trough it. While religion implied need for God and kings were taking that role trough creating money as some divine capability.

    The first debts were to the temples/priests, then kings took over that ability to create debt, then to create money as debt.

    In medieval times, kings death marked debt cancelation of the state to the banks. As banks got stronger over time, they wanted to reduce such debt cancelations which was amplified by assasination of kings by their relatives in order to get the country out of debt.

    A king had an option of war as a source of debt repayment. But, if a king was unsucsefull in procuring enough of loot, or war costed more then its benefits, then the country would spiral into debt problem and raising taxes as a source for debt repayment. That would be solved by killing the king.

    Banks reduced debt cancelations by removing life of a king as a sole guarantor of debt repayment and put it onto the state/ government. Debt problems caused representative democracy to arrive into the world. There is no debt cancelation on state level now which caused start of capitalism trough capital accumulation of banks while still having problems of having wars/colonization as debt repayment mean.

    Keynes theory of money and economy showed a way for alternative way to reduce debts, besides trough loot of other countries. Trough inflation on fixed interest rate.

    As we are leaving Keynes’s insights, we are slowly aproaching to debt solutions by looting another countries again.

    JQ, to arrive at the real answer, you can not separate the play of money role (economy) on politics and whole history of it. Just as you can not understand economy without including money, debt and banking system into it, as Steve Keen says to Krugman.

  25. Jordan
    February 26th, 2013 at 21:45 | #25

    In the begining there was no debt. Just look at the American Indian tribes that had no money nor taxes that drives money into existence. Large Indian tribes were doing barter exchange while at the same time having huge civilisation and not so huge towns. AT the same time they solved their social problems trough general agreement with their chiefs. They had elderly councils as government that had to get to solutions trough general agreement/ democracy. That is a natural state of forming a government. “Lord of the Flies” is a nice example of natural government(decision makers) forming

    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2011/08/21/the-illusion-of-asymmetric-insight/

    Here is a disection of group forming process and antagonizam that competition for resources drives to.

  26. Katz
    February 26th, 2013 at 21:50 | #26

    In England, adult males were voting for local councils long before they voted for MPs. Thus representation had a history much longer than the story of national suffrage.

    Simply to concentrate on national suffrage thus presents a false picture of English experience of representative government.

  27. Andre S
    February 26th, 2013 at 22:12 | #27

    The origins of Democratic institutions are closely tied to protest movements, followed by the creation of a civilian police force that generally respected/practiced human dignity and community policing protecting people, property and parliament. The French and American revolutions had their origins in protest, against non-democratic rulers, eventually turning violent. These democracies gradually transferred power from the autocrats to parliament and the people.

  28. Chris Warren
    February 26th, 2013 at 22:21 | #28

    Mel got this half right…

    I’m not aware of any law that prevents workers organising themselves into democratic productive units and competing in the marketplace with capitalist firms.

    We just need government to provide the same subsidies and loans as (for example) were fed to Kodak and the car industry and banks that do not demand a business plan with capitalist super profit before providing finance.

    Workers cooperatives or public trading enterprises with appropriate finance and in the absence of restrictive trade practices, can easily compete in the marketplace. They often become so wealthy that right-wing governments often sell them to access the cash.

    In general capitalists campaign against public services because they know public enterprises will usually provide more services at cheaper prices.

  29. Mel
    February 26th, 2013 at 22:32 | #29

    Warren: “We just need government to provide the same subsidies and loans as … ”

    No, we need the government to end the vote buying loans and subsidies, period.

    Warren again: “Workers cooperatives … can easily compete in the marketplace. They often become so wealthy that right-wing governments often sell them to access the cash.”

    Since workers own a co-op, government can’t sell it. Try not to embarrass yourself with incoherent and nonsensical ramblings.

  30. Fran Barlow
    February 26th, 2013 at 22:47 | #30

    @Mel

    It is silly to assume that ordinary people want to spend a large part of their waking hours becoming “well-informed” and actively engaging in the tedium of democratic decision making. It is entirely rational for citizen X, whose influence on broader political outcomes is always likely to be a barely visible flyspeck, to instead devote his or her time to more fructuous pursuits, such as mastering the idiosyncracies of the 3-valved flugelhorn.

    Let me assure you Mel, nothing I’m proposing would either compel participation in governance from any citizen nor interfere with them venting into the musical instrument of their choice.

    OTOH, configuring a system so as to ensure that hardly anyone imagines their input will make a flyspeck’s worth of difference is simply wrong, and demeaning.

    I don’t suppose this nuance eludes you, but this is the internet and one can never be entirely sure of the cognitive accomplishment of abusive trolls like you.

    @TerjeP

    Yes indeed — sortition for candidate short lists combined with some deliberative voting and more draws by lot would be a lot better at producing a parliament that resembled the community it is supposed to serve. Over time, that community would come to be better informed, improving the quality of the pool as well. Throw in some direct democracy for the paradigmatic and also overarching policy and you have an excellent mix.

  31. February 27th, 2013 at 02:29 | #31

    Mel, you have captured the spirit of pragmatism I understand that runs through The Priority of Democracy. So what is the “revolutionary alternative” to “plutocracy with democratic characteristics”?

    Without prejudging such a possibility, what would it look like in operation? It is not just about playing an instrument and perhaps singing as well – a pretty amazing accomplishment – it may about writing the music that uses all the available players and instruments to full effect.

  32. Mel
    February 27th, 2013 at 03:07 | #32

    I’m a social democrat, wmmbb. I don’t believe in revolutionary alternatives nor do I trust the f00ls, knaves and egotists who advocate them. I think we’re stuck with “plutocracy with democratic characteristics” ameliorated by occasional incremental improvements (paid m/paternity leave being one of the latest) until some distant future event that no lowly keyboard tinkerer such as myself could ever hope to foresee.

  33. rog
    February 27th, 2013 at 04:52 | #33

    @Katz And it was also England that, with one eye in the revolutions of Europe, that created reforms sufficient to dampen social unrest.

    The checks and balances of the UK system ie the Parliament appoints a Sovereign who in turn heads Parliament, a group of elected and appointed individuals, has been a more successful model than others. Those models that give all the power to individuals and none to capital, or vice versa, have collapsed.

  34. Newtownian
    February 27th, 2013 at 07:01 | #34

    Mel :Nonetheless, despite my above comments, I nonetheless think our democracy, and more so American democracy, is really “plutocracy with democratic characteristics”. Not great, but far better than the alternatives offered by the revolutionary left.

    The revolutionary left may not have the solutions but they arguably have a lot of good explanatory hypotheses worthy of attention and buried in their analyses of the past 150 years. In this regard a friend last night quite independently raised this blog topic with me (serendipity or is it that the current gloves off behaviour of the NSW and Queensland state governments, not to mention the technocratic behaviour of federal Labor, has got a lot of people worried about the health of local democracy).

    Her comment was ‘What about Gramsci?’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gramsci . Though I knew of him I knew nothing directly of his strand of socialist analysis which tried to understand society democracy the economy etc. from what we might these days call a ‘Networks’, ‘Systems’ or ‘Process’ view (shades of Keynes?). It seems he and fellow travellers (like E. P Thompson, Hobsbawn and David Harvey who I have read) all take a more evolutionary fluid view of Democracy and Capitalism and are at odds with the old dogmatic narrow economics focused old left Marxist/Leninists.

    Perhaps here is a vein of gold into understanding the modern democracy we have part forgotten about but deserves revisiting.

  35. kevin1
    February 27th, 2013 at 07:24 | #35

    On the genesis of rep democracy, my intuition is that generally the devolution of political authority is a defensive response to irresistible pressure from below, as only exceptionally is privilege surrendered voluntarily. Therefore change is limited to what’s necessary to keep the masses at bay, subterfuge is employed, and “power” relations (being more multi-faceted) preserved to the extent possible. This doesn’t preclude individual agency and leadership dynamics (Steele Hall in SA 1965?), including concessions from rulers who acknowledge the inevitable, and personnel swapping sides during the process, nuancing the dualistic aspect.

    All this is analogous to processes we see in human organisation generally, and I assume this is where people learn about “democracy”, its potential, costs and benefits of struggling for it, and the other connections between life as it is lived personally and the “official” polity. Since we all want congruence between what we aspire to (or think/feel we want) and its facilitation within our operating frameworks, the risk-weighted balance of costs and benefits will fluctuate, individually and over time.

    I see “creeping democracy” is a secular trend as we all seek a hedonic state of being, and the authority of ideology, religion, workplaces and historical constructs of all sorts is under permanent challenge. But the form of this in most societies seems to have become withdrawal: a “creeping fragmentation” along tribal, religious and identity lines (“imagined communities”), undermining the centripetal forces which formed nation states and the central authority associated with rep democracy. Where personal traumas resulting from wars, extreme oppression, hunger and poverty have created a pressure cooker effect and perceptions of a disjunction between the old and the new society, then “petty nationalism” is often seen as the aspiration (Sudan vs South Sudan?); with the “solution” postponed to the indefinite future. For dissonant subcultures, the diminution of institutional power is the objective, such as its radical redefinition (gay marriage), or a deliberate distancing (youth subcultures, virtual communities).

    The modern rep democracy is seen as dysfunctional due to being remote, fake, venal and and captured by sectional interests. All this argues for disinterested, technocratic rule, but this is not immune from the same influences and adds the rejected authority of absolutism. I suspect the dissolution of many Australian local governments over the last couple of decades was a showcase of the weaknesses and strengths of both these models, with a lot of locals interested and active around “democracy”.

    I’m very taken with the deliberative democracy model though don’t know much about it. It sounds like it has a decisionmaking quality about it, and incorporates the democratic and expert contribution. We have seen outbreaks of generosity of spirit (towards asylum-seekers, gays, indigenes, environmental protection) which makes me optimistic that a governing framework which responds to these concerns about the state of governance will get traction. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” ― Margaret Mead

  36. Chris Warren
    February 27th, 2013 at 08:23 | #36

    @Mel

    Obviously you cannot read.

    If you want people to be bothered with you – you need to stop deleting words from posts and then arguing against your own version.

    But then from your dogma, this is all you can do.

    Cheats never prosper.

  37. February 27th, 2013 at 08:49 | #37

    @Fran Barlow

    “That’s not the central mission of democracy”

    I agree, but I think I wasn’t being careful with words in my comment you were replying to. Perhaps, I should of used the phrase “The current Western Democracies we have and/or are seeing SEEMS to be effective in its process of selecting the least harmful government as perceived by the majority of the voters.”

  38. Jordan
    February 27th, 2013 at 09:29 | #38

    “Money makes the world goes around” as Lisa Minnelli sang.

    Money also makes politics evolve and social constructs evolve trough importance of money, and money system is changed as social problems are getting solved in a growing society and making use of money more beneficial to the society.

    We are slowly growing out of kings and emperors as a uniting principle behind a societal group and going towards money as a uniter. The speed of developement is defined by speed of communication within a group. As communication between groups become faster, the kings as gods idea becomes weaker and needed less. The communication speed allows for better selforganizing of a society. Low speed of communication 2000 years ago made central desicion preferable and more succesfull over decentralized decision making allowing to such societies to conquer wast areas of small disunited groups.

    But wast distances requierd better communications for an empire therefore Romans build roads and sped up communications allowing for its own destruction, of its own centralized control.

    As money is becoming more important unifier of a society, decision process is changing. Centralized decision making is retreating to money as decision maker advances. Market forces are stronger then governments.

    As we are aproaching almost instant communication, the role of government is being reduced even further and faster and money is completly taking over as decision makers. We as a society decide on everything based on capital accumulation as a meassure of succes. And our social cooperation is guiding us toward succes based on money usage.

    It is a process of trial and error on how to achieve society without problems. This also transforms the use of money for benefits of society; from debts of government for war logistics, then to exchange of that debt by population, then banks created their money, then to using gold as messure of value in exchange in order to unify multiple bank money within a country, then to Bretton Woods tying all currencies to US dollar, then to fiat money, then to digital currencies. Globalization is driven by money and free trade allows for free movement of capital which intertwine multiple countries. EU unifing currency is supposed to help in solving the problems of competition with huge organized societies such as USA, China, Russia. And now that its money system is in crisis, only solution is toward more unity within EU which younger people demand, or total disolution of a united market.

    It might be surprising that development of societies took so long to reach representative democracy, but i would contribute it to our own human duality. Young people tend to ask for more equality in distribution (liberal) while as we grow older we accumulate money, wealth and status and want to conserve such order(conservative) from attempts of younger people to share it more equaly.
    It is a natural state of humanity that slows down the developement but also allows for proper developement of a society to take such responsibility.

    “All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”
    Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Strength to Love,’ 1963

  39. dylwah
    February 27th, 2013 at 10:42 | #39

    G’day Prof Q. I’m with el poppin to some extent. The dominant narrative of democracy, Athens Rome, English civil war, revolutions, suffrage, mirrors the growth of reading and writing. It is also predicated on the long slow, three steps forward-two steps back sory of the develpoment of the populatio and its ‘preparadness’ for democracy. It seems that the pre Roman Celtic federation and Basque constitution were at least as as democratic as the Athenians, a low bar, I know. And as their knowledge base was primarily oral rather than written the roman characterisations as savages etc stuck for a long time. It may be that the story of democracy in Europe is less the development and accrual of rights than the reclamation of rights.

  40. Fran Barlow
    February 27th, 2013 at 10:51 | #40

    @Tom

    I’m guessing English is not your first language. Just for tidiness:

    Perhaps, I should of {have} used the phrase … {also: ‘I might have said’ is more natural here. }

    On the substantive point … I was challenging the view that ‘choosing the least harmful government as perceived by the majority of the voters’ is really all (or even mainly) that we can hope for from ‘democracy’. If we get the settings right, with the consequence that most people are well informed about what can and cannot be done and the timelines along which goals are most likely to be realised, are civic minded and find constructive participation easy, then achieiving the least harmful government will not only be an inevitable consequence, but it will means something far more impressive than it does now, even assuming that this is currently being achieved. Clearly, in Australia, we have regularly failed in that respect. It’s only recently we’ve even had a fringe party with a sharply more progressive (and thus less harmful) program enter the lower house of Federal Parliament.

  41. February 27th, 2013 at 11:40 | #41

    @Fran Barlow

    Getting the settings right is very difficult as I have explained my thoughts on the conditions which democracy should have to be effective in choosing a government that best represents the voters. Mel is right in a sense that, unfortunately, it is very unrealistic to have a population (or a large proportion at least) that pays a lot of attention to politics and in the same time have enough knowledge to understand every important issue which needs to be addressed in the modern society.

    That’s why I focused on the importance of the perception of the voters in a democracy (whether if the perception is right or wrong). I do not view the goal of democracy to be “choosing the least harmful government as perceived by the voters” however that is my (current) conclusion on what democracy is effective at, rather than selecting a government that best represents the voters.

    Ironically, in my opinion, it is the democractic system itself which makes it difficult to have a populations that makes democracy effective. Unless the population are self-willing and understands the importance to pay a lot of attention to politics and learn about the issues which needs to be addressed, there is a large chance (if not a certainty) that they will vote out the government that forces them to do so.

  42. February 27th, 2013 at 12:11 | #42

    I have never considered this before, but it seems to me that pragmatism describes the status quo and after the fact. It does not explain causes or differences. Clearly people act on pragmatic understandings, but that would have never produced either democracy or representative democracy.

    This observation is illustrated by considering the Australian Constitution which draws on the US Constitution with common antecedents in the origins and development of Common Law. The fuller explanation requires, I think, importantly an understanding of the influence of the Protestant Revolution, especially the notion of “the priesthood of believers”. This was given expression and realized in the experience of small groups.

    By contrast, the contemporary Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is different in kind. I am sure there is nothing original in noting that in the Australian Constitution, individual rights and citizenship don’t get mentioned, not even as a secondary consideration. The US Second Amendment, the slave owners concession, is a good illustration of political compromise, and illustrates how pragmatism works to deny principle, the reality of economic interests and power by ascribing a “right”. Similarly, the Senate has as much to do with the principles of representative democracy as the House of Lords.

  43. Katz
    February 27th, 2013 at 13:55 | #43

    rog :
    @Katz And it was also England that, with one eye in the revolutions of Europe, that created reforms sufficient to dampen social unrest.
    The checks and balances of the UK system ie the Parliament appoints a Sovereign who in turn heads Parliament, a group of elected and appointed individuals, has been a more successful model than others. Those models that give all the power to individuals and none to capital, or vice versa, have collapsed.

    Agreed.

    Since the disaster of the American Revolution, the political classes of Britain mastered the art of strategic concession.

    For their part, the leaders and representative of the disenfranchised aspiring classes could with justice point to the benefits of peaceful agitation and a career open to talent for themselves.

    It must be noted, however, that this formula failed in Ireland, which continued during the 19th century to support independence movements immune to the blandishments of co-option.

    Therefore, it can be said that co-option was never a formula for guaranteed success.

  44. Katz
    February 27th, 2013 at 14:01 | #44

    rog :

    “And it was also England that, with one eye in the revolutions of Europe, that created reforms sufficient to dampen social unrest.
    The checks and balances of the UK system ie the Parliament appoints a Sovereign who in turn heads Parliament, a group of elected and appointed individuals, has been a more successful model than others. Those models that give all the power to individuals and none to capital, or vice versa, have collapsed.”

    Agreed.

    Since the disaster of the American Revolution, the political classes of Britain mastered the art of strategic concession.

    For their part, the leaders and representative of the disenfranchised aspiring classes could with justice point to the benefits of peaceful agitation and a career open to talent for themselves.

    It must be noted, however, that this formula failed in Ireland, which continued during the 19th century to support independence movements immune to the blandishments of co-option.
    Therefore, it can be said that co-option was never a formula for guaranteed success.

  45. Fran Barlow
    February 27th, 2013 at 15:14 | #45

    @Tom

    unfortunately, it is very unrealistic to have a population (or a large proportion at least) that pays a lot of attention to politics and in the same time have enough knowledge to understand every important issue which needs to be addressed in the modern society.

    I disagree. That’s an attribute that any genuinely inclusive jurisdiction would achieve. It’s clearly not something that could be contrived tomorrow or next nonth or even next year — but over a generation, it should be possible.

    I’m not suggesting that everyone would have an expert’s grasp of arguments in health policy or microeconomics or the engineering issues in major infrastructure. What I am suggesting though is that most could have a grasp of at least the basic questions for which one would need answers, and know where to look in order to find discussion about them and have the skill to understand and reflect on the claims being made.

    Yes we here in Australia would be starting from a very low base — ignorance and disengagement seems to be very much the rule rather than the exception. Speaking as an educator, I know only too well that involving people in learning (especially adults!) is not as easy as one would hope, but our settings seem if anything to have added more obstacles rather than cleared them away. For mine, that is perhaps the worst of all the system’s failures.

    I dream of the day when members of parliament say — Admittedly this system really isn’t at all inclusive or democratic. We are a plutocracy that has made some concessions to the separation of state and civil society, but here are the things we are going to do to move governance in the direction of inclusion and civic engagement. That would be a fabulous start.

    I’m not speaking of any kind of coercion. I’m firmly of the view that participation should be voluntary. If someone really isn’t interested in acquiring the insight to participate in the business of governance or simply doesn’t care what happens, I believe that we can conclude that he or she is happy for anyone else at random to speak on their behalf. That is why I believe we need something far better than merely voting once every three years or so on which bunch of people are less egregious by some random standard or another. Really, that’s just plebiscitary dictatorship. I can see why people don’t want to participate in that and why they have to be coerced with fines to do so.

  46. hc
    February 27th, 2013 at 15:35 | #46

    My comment was held in moderation but I can’t see that I have broken any rules. Try again.

    Analytically democracy came about as a solution to the Hobbesian “brutishness of man” Prisoner’s Dilemma problem. Its a less costly way (in terms of blood and tyranny) of getting us all to behave ourselves, to our mutual advantage, than installing an all-powerful Hobbesian dictator. Maybe that explanation is consistent with your points (i), (ii) above.

  47. Mel
    February 27th, 2013 at 16:13 | #47

    It is a conceit to think a more active citizenry would be good for progressives. The last major citizen rebellion against the establishment was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Depending on which poll you read, many Australians still support the death penalty and most polls show the electorate has extremely harsh attitudes towards asylum seekers.

    It is no surprise that some right wing groups favour citizen initiated referenda.

  48. kevin1
    February 27th, 2013 at 16:40 | #48

    @Mike Smith
    Thanks for the tip about it being long and heavy – I’ve settled for the wiki version. I also read a bit of the Crooked Timber discussion about The Priority of Democracy, and prob won’t read that book either – the thinking and writing style of that field I find difficult. Having now declared my half-heartedness, I will just report what looked like an area of commonality between the two books, as summarised by others (the wiki on the Keane book appears to be written by his publisher).

    At CT, Peter Boetke in “Institutional Problems Demand Institutional Solutions” says that pol institutions should be checked for “(1) coordinating effective institutional experimentation, (2) monitoring and assessing effective institutional performance for the range of institutions available in any society, and most importantly, (3) monitoring and assessing its own ongoing performance”, and democracy comes up trumps against alternatives. Boetke says “democracy as an institution provides precisely this mechanism” and also at CT Melissa Schwartzberg in “Legitimacy and Democracy’s Priority” lauds “democracy’s capacity to solve some set of political problems”.

    Keane apparently says that, since end WW2 we are in the age of “monitory democracy”, where extra-parliamentary bodies are part of the framework and make the rep bodies more accountable and democratic. As elections, parliaments and parties become less connected to the people, the external (including international) bodies embody the democratic constraint on power, examples being “public integrity commissions, judicial activism, local courts, workplace tribunals, consensus conferences, parliaments for minorities, public interest litigation, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, independent public inquiries, think-tanks, experts’ reports, participatory budgeting, vigils, ‘blogging’ and other novel forms of media scrutiny.” Note “the press” is not included in keeping the bastards honest!

    I haven’t read the other CT writers but the new checks and balances on the rep democratic form as John Keane has explained it seems integral to its evolution, and partial renovation. They also look like not post-1945 put post-1970 creations to me.

  49. Jim Rose
    February 27th, 2013 at 17:07 | #49

    Isn’t democracy marvellous! A first time party can win 25% of the vote in Italy; another first time party won 20% of the seats in the Knesset.

    The Senate next year will be controlled by a no pokies independent, the new DLP, and a party lead by a man most comfortable in the 1950s DLP. Economic nationalists all! The state upper houses are filled with minor parties.

    Anyone can get into parliament as long as they have a message that resonants.

  50. rog
    February 27th, 2013 at 17:31 | #50

    @kevin1 You could also view the monitoring aspect as a legal requisite for lawmakers.

    This could a point of difference between code Napoleon and the British style of law, inquiry vs adversary.

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