The following notes on the future of democratic representation were inspired by Simon Tormey’s The end of representative politics (2015), launched at a Gleebooks event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), May 15th 2015.
Whatever is happening in the field of party politics within the old parliamentary democracies? Why is mass membership of political parties a thing of the past? How come politicians are so disrespected, turnout rates volatile and elections often treated as pay-back moments by angry citizens?
A handful of clues is provided by the 2015 UK General Election, whose dynamics and results have attracted great global attention and floods of commentary on such matters as the break-up of Britain, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union and the dismal failure of the Labour Party to win over those parts of the middle class convinced there’s no alternative to the mean clampdown politics of austerity. The 2015 election was undoubtedly a media event extraordinaire. For a few days, it even featured robust debate about the failings of a first-past-the-post electoral system that awarded only one seat each to UKIP, which won 3.8 million votes, and to the Greens, who won 1.1 million votes.
By contrast, media assessments of the ocean of public disaffection on which the ship of Westminster and its parliamentary elections are now floating have been rare. During the days following the election, for instance, I rummaged in vain to find within the British press commentaries on the steady decline of voter turnout since 1950 (the United Kingdom now ranks 76th in world turnout rankings). I also couldn’t find any analysis of the number of citizens who actually voted for the return of a Tory government now blessed (thanks to the electoral system) with a thumping absolute majority in the House of Commons. I was forced to do my own calculations, to discover (on an overall turnout of 66.1%) that a mere 24.4% of adult citizens actually cast their vote for the new Conservative government.
Journalists and public commentators wilfully or blindly ignored such figures and long-term trends. Some did lament the way television broadcasters successfully managed to push ‘horse-race’ coverage, for instance by emphasising just how close the contest was between the Conservatives and Labour, why a Labour/SNP coalition government was a real possibility, and whether or not such a government could handle the fragile economy. Other commentators chose instead to bang on about the surprise result, and why it happened. Or they noted the end of Duverger’s Law, which states that first-past-the-post systems typically produce two-party systems.
Missing in these reports was any sense of the several ways, slowly but surely, parliamentary democracy in Britain is drifting backwards, heading towards a 21st-century version of late 18th-century politics. By this provocative analogy I mean to highlight the way present-day parliamentary politics is coming to be dominated by such 18th-century facts as the capture of government by the rich, the weakening of independent parliamentary powers and the near-collapse of mass political party organisations. The regressive trend includes as well cuts to welfare support for permanently poor people (1 in 5 of the UK population, 13 million people, now live below the official poverty line). Elections that bear more than a passing resemblance to pork-barrel plebiscites, widespread public mockery and disaffection with politics on high and tough law-and-order measures designed to spy on and control ‘harmful activities’ are also part of the same backsliding.
Rough Music Politics
These are mere tendencies, yes. But they’re to be found within many other parliamentary democracies, and that is why, to extend the 18th-century simile, ‘rough music’ politics is everywhere returning to their streets, parks and fields. In practically every existing parliamentary democracy, the disaffected and excluded are expressing their annoyance in unconventional ways. Once upon a time, as Edward Thompson famously pointed out, the 18th-century poor and powerless and pissed off expressed their indignation through ritual, revelry and riot. Raucous ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter and the mimicking of obscenities were the weapons of the weak. In France, such practices were called charivari (Italians spoke of scampanate; the Germans Katzenmusik), while in late eighteenth-century Britain the protests paraded under such strangely obsolete names as ‘shallals’, ‘riding the stang’ and ‘skimmingtons’, rowdy parades expressing moral disapproval featuring effigies of the proxy victims.
The end of representative politics
Today, in the much-changed, media-saturated circumstances of the 21st-century, rough music assumes different forms, as Simon Tormey convincingly shows in his newly-published work, The end of representative politics. The book is a precious gem. A genuinely original contribution to the field, it’s a beautifully crafted slim essay with a big thesis: we are living through the end of an aura, says Tormey, the slow but sure decline of legitimacy and vibrancy of party politics and representative government. ‘We are moving, remorselessly, away from representation and representative politics towards styles and modes of politics that engage us immediately, directly, now.’ Symptomatic is the world-wide flourishing of what Tormey calls ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’: flash protests, occupations, hacking, boycotts, Facebook- and Twitter-led campaigns, circles, pinging and micro-parties. Concerned active citizens, he says, are no longer patiently prepared to wait until election time to express their concerns. Harnessing state-of-the-art media ‘they seek to make their views, anger, displeasure, known immediately, now.’
Tormey examines the causes of the declining aura of representative politics. He’s right to say that the peccadilloes of politicians and the politics of enforced austerity are not the principal drivers of the trend. There are multiple deep causes, including such peculiarly modern factors as the collapse of old collective identities, like belonging to a working class community, individualisation and the spread of globalised capitalism. The weakening of parliaments by the massive expansion of executive state powers and the outsourcing of political decisions to corporate and cross-border bodies might have been added to the list. A more thorough analysis of the rapid contemporary growth of communicative abundance would have been helpful as well. But these oversights are minor blemishes in an outstanding book that most definitely is on to something of epochal political importance.
Its potent analysis naturally prompts the curly question of whether, as the title suggests, we’re living through times that count as the end game of representative politics. ‘It’s the end of the paradigm, the “metanarrative”’, answers Tormey. ‘Much of the enthusiasm has gone for the classical model of representative politics and all the paraphernalia that went with it: a belief in the essentially benevolent or well-intentioned motives of those who would represent; a belief that our deepest needs and interests are best off in some other person’s hands than our own; a belief that joining a traditional mass party will prove the best use of our time and energies as engaged citizens. The props fall away; but the superstructure is still intact.’
The words are wonderful and the core thesis of The end of representative politics is both daring and consequential. The book offers important insights and prompts intellectual and political questions; it also triggers doubts, as every adventurous book does. We should thank Tormey for forcing us to ask after the book’s wobbly sense of history. From when dates the collapse of the paradigm of representative politics, we may ask? Through the examples he cites, Tormey leads us to think of the collapse as a pretty recent phenomenon, one that stretches back no more than a couple of decades. There’s admittedly mention of the Zapatistas and the World Social Forum as instances of the end of representative politics, but by and large the book depends upon very recent examples of what he calls DIY politics: the M-15 movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square and the 5-Star Beppe Grillo phenomenon in Italy. They’re all good and interesting examples, to be sure; but they have the effect of obscuring the fact that since 1945 every major public issue, from civil rights and nuclear weapons to feminism, environment and disability, has been activated, publicised and pressed home by civic initiatives, networks and movements outside the zones of formal parliamentary politics.
The point is historical, and it’s important, if only because it reminds us that those who neglect or misunderstand the past are prone to misrecognise the present. The point is this: politicians, governments, parliaments and political parties have been under pressure for much longer than this book implies. The decline of representative politics has been coming for a generation, which implies the need to see the sea change noted by Tormey as connected to the near-collapse of parliamentary politics during the first half of the 20th century (a point developed at length in The Life and Death of Democracy) and the birth, during the 1940s, of a brand new form of democracy that I call monitory democracy.
Do Political Parties Have a Future?
This long-term transformation of democracy that began in the 1940s has decentred and de-territorialised elections, politicians and parliaments. The trend has naturally posed challenges to political parties, and raised questions about their fate. Do political parties have a future? On this point, Tormey is ambivalent. He mostly sides with the ¡Democracia Real YA! position that ‘the democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.’ But there are moments when Tormey admits that the party isn’t over. At one point he says that contemporary politics resonates with ‘the sound of anti-political politics, anti-representational representation’. In saying this, he has Podemos, Syriza and the SNP in mind: ‘Recent initiatives’, he notes, ‘suggest that even the most horizontal of activists now see that under representative or post-representative conditions the “horizontal” may need to be combined with the “vertical” to leverage alternatives for citizens during elections, to provide a focus for specific campaigns and demands.’
In these and other passages, it’s as if Tormey is neither for nor against representative politics, but just the reverse. His vexed ambivalence is entirely understandable, especially because a straightforward return to mass-membership political parties seems most improbable. During their heyday, as Robert Michels famously pointed out in his classic Political Parties (1911), political parties were powerful patronage machines. They offered paid-up members and supporters significant benefits: jobs, financial support, literacy, promises of one-person one-vote and access to state power and its resources. Parties today are ghostly silhouettes of their former selves, which raises the question: since for the foreseeable future political parties will remain indispensable conduits of access to such state resources as taxation revenues, law-making powers and policing and military force, which kind of political party has the greatest chances of success in getting out the vote, attracting the support of citizens? Are slimmed-down and flatter political parties using multi-media tactics and Google-type algorithms to turn heads, inspire hearts and to mobilise the vote viable alternatives to the old mass-membership party analysed by Michels? Or might party forms of the 21st century instead come to resemble accountancy parties (let’s call them). Might there in future be more of what we have now, so that organised parties resemble firms of well-advertised accountants and tax advisors hungry for business? Drab firms that nose-pinching citizens conveniently hook up with from time to time, when the need arises (elections), to do what they have to do (deal with the state), to submit their returns (by casting their votes), then to resume their everyday lives, at a distance from the party system, all the while complaining about the performance of politicians and poking fun and spinning crabbed jokes about the sad and boring rituals of all parties, including the party for which they’ve just voted?
Hobbes and Rousseau
Tormey doesn’t declare his hand on this point. In part, I suspect, this is not just because the task of building distinctively 21st-century parties is very much unfinished, speculative and highly challenging business; or because his whole approach (as he puts it) is ‘weakly normative’. Something else is at work here: it’s called gut contempt for representation. It’s a pity the book doesn’t attempt a fine-grained genealogy of the plural meanings of representation, but enough is said to confirm that Tormey typically understands representation in its originally Hobbesian sense of substitution. In plain English, representation for Tormey is a con. It’s a deceptively ideological practice whereby those who exercise power over others falsely claim themselves to be identical with those whom they rule. Put abstractly, representation (‘Trust and respect me, I am your representative’) is supposed likeness, matching and direct correspondence. It is unity through identification, congruity, alleged similarity. The representative claims to be the self-same or twin of the represented, a Doppelgänger, a facsimile or carbon copy of the represented, a chip off the old block.
Tormey’s provocative image of representation as illegitimate ruling, as a vertical relationship between leaders who lead by claiming falsely that they have the interests of the led at heart, helps to explain his repeated insistence that representation is the opposite of ‘horizontal’ citizen participation, and that the task of radical politics is ‘to connect rather than represent’. Inspired by Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who despite their substantial differences were agreed that representation is ruling others, Tormey strikingly concludes that 20th-century Communist Parties were ‘a quintessentially representative discourse and representative form of politics’.
The Principle of Disappointment
To my mind, this understanding of representation as unification through ruling is one-sided. It downplays the way the brand new idea and practice of representative democracy, as it emerged at the end of the 18th century, contained within it the principle of popular rejection and rotation of leaders. When measured by the ancient Greek standards of democracy as self-government by the people, for the people, representative democracy was of course a defective form of government. That was Rousseau’s strong objection. Government under conditions of representative democracy nevertheless rested, ideally speaking, on the premise that ‘the people’ are ultimately ‘sovereign’. It followed from this formulation that while perfect accord between representatives and the represented couldn’t ever be achieved, steps towards self-correction could and should always be taken. In the lonely hour of the last instance, ‘the people’ must always have the final say in determining who governs. Vox populi, vox dei. But in striving for mimesis – a closure of the gap between citizens and their representatives – representative democracy, according to its own standards, constantly chased after the unattainable. Its self-inscribed, openly declared lack of perfection stemmed from the fact that it embraced the principle of disappointment: the recognition that representatives and citizens are ultimately not identical.
In the life and times of modern representative democracy, the disappointment principle was often seen as its fundamental weakness, as proof of its reactionary incoherence. Today, as Tormey correctly emphasises, public disappointment with representatives is fuelling deep disaffection with parliamentary politics. The odd thing is that defenders of representative democracy (from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Dahl) consistently saw the disappointment principle as its greatest strength, certainly in comparison to tyrannical regimes that boss and bully their subjects into submission. They hailed representative democracy as a practical new method of publicly admitting differences of opinion and apportioning blame for the poor political performance of leaders. It was seen as a brand new way of enabling citizens to complain publicly and to let off steam about their leaders and, thus, to chastise them with threatened or actual rotation of leadership, guided by such criteria as merit, performance, responsiveness and humility.
Put differently: from the end of the 18th century, champions of representative democracy thought of it as a new and livelier form of humble government. It was seen as a novel way of creating space to enable not only individuals but also groups and dissenting political minorities to defend their interests legitimately, and to control those who governed them by means of an open competition for power that enabled elected representatives to test their political competence and leadership skills, in the presence of others equipped with the power to trip them up and throw them out of office, if and when they failed, as surely they would in the end.
The founding principle of representative democracy was both original and powerful: ‘the people’ do not govern but they do make periodic appearances in elections in order to judge, sometimes harshly, the performance of their representatives. Electors are entitled to throw the idiots out. That is how, from time to time, they solve what Hanna Pitkin famously called ‘the paradox of representation’: that citizens have to be absent in order to be re-presented but also present in order to be re-presented. Seen in terms of the deep tension that is inherent in the process of representation, this is the whole point of elections: they are weapons for periodically cheering up the disappointed. If representatives were always virtuous, impartial, competent and fully responsive to the wishes of the represented, elections would lose their purpose. The represented would be identical with their representatives; representation would lose its meaning; the animating disjunction between what ‘is’ and what ‘can be’ or ‘ought to be’ would consequently collapse. However, since representatives are rarely (if ever) like this, and since, in the eyes of the represented, they never quite get things right and are never so worthy and persuasive, often behaving like idiots who get things badly wrong, elections function as a vital means of disciplining representatives for having let down their electors. Through elections, the friends of representative democracy concluded, electors get their chance to throw harsh words and paper rocks at their representatives – to chuck them out of office and replace them with popularly elected substitutes.
The Changing Ecology of Representation
Well, that’s the old orthodox theory. In our times, for the variety of reasons outlined in this wonderful book, ideals are being crushed by practice. Tormey makes a stimulating and persuasive case for a new democratic politics pitted against mainstream political parties. In opposition to felt injustices and mounting inequality, he is right to champion new forms of public clamour. He calls for a ‘politics of resonance’, a renewal of the sense that democracy has been kidnapped, and that it needs to be reclaimed, and lived anew within everyday life. Trouble is that the new ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’ forms of democratic politics he has in mind are everywhere, and without exception, instances of representative politics. Their lack of structure and formal leadership and avowed rejection of representation (‘United, the people do not need parties’ was the cry of protesters from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, five years ago) are only apparent. Their reliance upon mechanisms of representation is too often disguised, or denied. Truth is they rely upon mechanisms of representation, if by that word is meant what the earliest champions of representative democracy meant: acting on behalf of others, in their name, subject to their consent.
Michael Saward and others have recently pointed out that in this sense all politics involves claim making on behalf of others, and it therefore follows from this wider definition that in the age of monitory democracy the politics of representation is not confined to elections and parties and parliaments, that is, formal parliamentary politics in the narrow sense. Often in opposition to mainstream political parties, unelected and non-party representative politics is flourishing. That’s a key reason why mainstream political parties are feeling the pinch. They increasingly find themselves competing in fields of power with other bodies claiming to be representative of their constituencies. The fundamental point is that we’re not witnessing the end of representative politics but, rather, we’re living through times in which the ecology of representation is changing, becoming more complex, and ever more dispersed. Tormey agrees, and that’s the principal insight of his excellent book: within human affairs, the central political struggle is no longer, or primarily, the battle for one person, one vote. In the age of monitory democracy, the central struggle is to establish the principle of one person, many votes, multiple representatives, wherever power is exercised.
Seen in this way, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace are just as politically important as any political party on our planet. So, too, are citizens’ efforts to blow the whistle on institutionalised racism, or to extend rights of representation to indigenous peoples, disabled citizens and the poor. Which is to say that rather than witnessing the end of representative politics, we’re now living in times faced by a double democratic challenge: the challenge of breathing life back into political parties as trusted representatives of the wishes and needs of citizens considered as equals, and the difficult, potentially complementary struggle to extend the principles of representation into every field of power where arbitrary rule currently mangles the lives of people and their environment.