Anti-Politics and the 1%

2014 801 pol swPolitics as usual (Photo: Thomas Hawk / Flickr)Anti-representative democracy is the view according to which true democracy and true political equality can exist only in the absence of electoral-representative structures that separate citizens from political power. This view is a kind of anti-politics insofar as it rejects the prominent forms of contemporary politics, namely the electoral systems and parliamentary institutions of contemporary democracies. According to anti-representative democracy, these electoral-representative structures need to be radically reformed and, if and when possible, eliminated.

One useful way of articulating the ideal of anti-representative democracy is in terms of anti-oligarchic and anti-plutocratic concerns. The electoral-representative institutions of contemporary democracies are arguably little more than instruments in the hands of corporations and of the super-rich, both of whom control electoral-representative structures through lobbying, the financing of electoral campaigns, the “revolving doors” between politics and business, etc. By means of these mechanisms, the richest 1% can constrain and direct the action of democratically elected politicians, and thereby determine the economic policies that affect (often negatively) the remaining 99%. In the last 35 years, these policies have produced more efficient and subtle ways for the super-rich to extract resources from the planet and from the rest of the population.

The anti-oligarchic rationale for an attack on electoral-representative structures resonates with some of the claims and actions of various protest groups, such as the Spanish 15-M Movement (and its recent offshoot, Podemos), Occupy Wall Street (and other branches of the Occupymovement), the Italian Five Star Movement, as well as some so-called “populist” parties in Europe and South America.

There is also another important kind of anti-political attack on electoral-representative structures. This is the call for depoliticization that finds its rationale in the wish to increase the efficiency of decision-making in contemporary democracies. According to this view, many decisions currently taken by elected bodies should instead be taken by independent and unbiased experts, or by strong executives with the advice of experts.

According to this form of anti-politics, parliaments in particular are thought to hinder the efficiency of government: Parliamentary debates and negotiations do not add to the quality of law-making; they generate incentives for spurious and polemical disagreement and for cross vetoes; they often allow vocal minorities to hijack or block the lawmaking process; they work through committees that lack competence to rule over technical issues, etc. So, parliaments should be smaller; their powers should be fewer and much more constrained; lawmaking procedures should be simpler and less political; disagreement should be neutralized; vocal minorities should be silenced – and so on. Those who support these proposals look with envy at how decisions are made in countries like China. According to them, depoliticization in democratic countries has become a necessity because of the economic war that globalization has generated: If the efficiency and responsiveness of political decision-making in contemporary democracies does not improve, China and similar countries will win this war, and democracy itself will decline and eventually disappear.

A telling instance of this form of anti-politics is a report released in 2013 by JP Morgan – the global financial giant – on the Euro crisis and the need to reform the institutional arrangements of the so-called “peripheral” countries in the European Union. According to this report, one problem is the “anti-fascist constitutions” of these countries. Such constitutions are said to be problematic because they protect labor rights and the right to protest, and because they result in weak executives and in “consensus building systems which foster political clientalism.” The executives are weak relative to the power of elected bodies, such as parliament and local councils. The consensus building system consists in the methods and procedures these elected bodies use to generate decisions, which according to the report are undesirable because they very often lead to expansive fiscal and monetary policies and to labor-friendly regulations.

This example indicates that efficiency-driven anti-politics is often a call for restricting or weakening the democratic oversight on policy-making in order to give more power to the markets and ultimately to corporations and financial firms. Experts – especially economic experts – are never really independent or unbiased. Efficiency driven anti-politics is a weapon in the hands of those who aim to establish an oligarchy-controlled technocracy. This call for depoliticization found expression in the words of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who argued in 2011 that democratic parliamentary deliberation should be shaped so as to be “in conformity with the markets” (marktkonform).

The representative structures of contemporary democracies are under attack on two opposite fronts. One front finds its motivation in a desire to resist the effects that increasing economic inequalities are having on the distribution of political power, effects that are taking contemporary societies further and further away from the ideal of political equality. This is a proposal to cure the diseased state of democracy by making contemporary democracies more genuinely democratic. The other front proposes to cure democracy by making contemporary democracies less democratic. The proposal is to replace elected bodies with an efficient technocracy. Because of the distribution of real power in contemporary societies, this technocracy cannot be anything but an oligarchy-controlled technocracy, which would inevitably exacerbate the concentration of political power that the anti-oligarchic attacks on electoral-representative structures are trying to oppose.

Some might take this diagnosis as indicating that the critiques of electoral-representative structures coming from these two different perspectives counterbalance each other, and that it is thereby important to hold the center by defending and protecting electoral-representative structures. We disagree. We think that the existence and strength of the two kinds of attacks show that the electoral-representative structures have become irremediably obsolete. Even if they played a positive role in the past history of democracy, they are now chronically malfunctioning and are destined to disappear as a result of technological change and globalization. The fight between the two opposite proposals will be crucial for determining the future of democracy and ultimately the future of humanity.