How Democracies Create their own Voters

Black Cat on 2020-01-08

Democracy is not an abstract principle. It is an actually existing process, and it follows (often poorly-)defined procedures.

There is no such thing as the ‘collective will’, already automatically existing and ready to express itself. The procedures are needed to construct any sense of a collective subject, and the details of those procedures affect what sort of collective subject is constructed.

To appropriate Thatcher: there is no such thing as society. There are people, who might want things, individually. The ability to want things collectively, the ability to be collective, does not precede the act and structure of being aggregated together.

Saying that you are pro-democracy is nearly meaningless, unless you specify what you think of as being ‘the real democracy’. This, again, raises the question of what is ‘real’ democracy.

The ancient Greeks thought that sortition (the practice of picking the representative[s] of a constituency through lottery, rather than through election) was the only democratic form of government. They actually regarded elections as aristocratic — because they knew that such a method would naturally favor the richest and most able among them.

Statist socialists have generally dismissed western liberal representative democracy as undemocratic, for much the same reasons — but, one imagines, they might feel differently if such systems were more prone to putting socialists in power.

The Nepalese communists, currently in power, certainly regard the multi-party representative democracy that they fought for and constructed (overthrowing and replacing a monarchy in the 2000s) to be a proper, people’s, democracy.

American liberals generally regarded the Soviet system to be undemocratic. There was more or less only one candidate up for election in any given race — but, if that candidate got less than 50% of the total possible turn-out in votes, the candidate would be replaced with another.

This doesn’t seem all that much worse than the American system, given that most constituencies are solidly for one of the two parties, and that even purple constituencies are nearly always cases of a simple binary choice between two alternatives that are both palatable to the establishment. It’s like when a parent tricks a child by offering them a choice between bed now or bed 15 minutes from now.

In general, the way that a constituency is constructed effects what common interests voters in that constituency have.

Pretty much every Western liberal democracy evolved out of only giving (white, male) land-owners the vote. As such, it’s hardly surprising that they group constituencies based on residency in a rough geographical region: land-owners within an area have common interests together.

Syndicalists, by contrast, propose a system of union-based democracy: they wish for workplaces to elect representatives to industries, and for industries to elect representatives to society/the economy/the state. This is based on the idea that those who work within the same workplace have common interests.

Bookchinites group people into neighborhood-sized voting groups, organize the groups by city, and so on vaguely upwards. This much smaller grouping differs from western liberal democracy, despite superficially resembling it — instead of assuming that common interests come from ownership of land in the same geographic area, Bookchinites assume that common interests are found between people who live close enough together to meet face-to-face on a regular basis.

Corporatists, in the old fascist sense, believe that people within functional groupings of society (often, but not always, those who work in the same industry) should form constituencies together — as was practiced in fascist Italy and Portugal, and as is practiced in modern Hong Kong and Macau. This differs from the syndicalist model both by organizational layering and by the inclusion of the owning class.

These all do the same thing: they choose a way that people can have a common interest, and group such people’s voices together. By grouping their voices (and power) together, you make them express that sort of common interest, and not a different one.

If you group things geographically, large-scale economic and infrastructural interests will be brought to the fore, because such people will have that in common — and the interests of minority groups will mostly be suppressed, because they will be minorities.

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

If you group interests by workplace and by industry, the interests that people have outside of work — including non-workers (unless there are wages for housework, a pensioner’s union, a union for the disabled, etc, etc) — will be ignored.

If you group interests by neighborhood, the boundaries of a neighborhood — always arbitrary — will begin to take on almost occult significance in the minds of those who live there, and any interests that straddle neighborhood lines may be suppressed.

Photo by Liz Sanchez-Vegas on Unsplash

Constituency construction always causes people to think and act in ways that confirm the assumptions underlying that construction. Such a constituency choice always inevitably comes to seem natural and without alternative: a given constituency always makes ancient political choice look like eternal human nature.

The voting method, too, affects what choices people will make.

First-past-the-post voting creates systems in which two parties are overwhelmingly dominant, because voting for anyone likely to be in 3rd (or lower) place is a waste — or might even sabotage a party you would rather win. A two-party system always acts to stabilize political choice within a small window, by presenting those as the only two possibilities — the idea of being to the right of Trump or to the left of Bernie is seen as an impossibility by most.

Photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

Preference-based, multiple-choice voting is nearly neutral, by comparison — but it, too, gives a sense that one of the parties on the ballet is the ‘right’ choice; the voter does not independently argue themselves into an entire party’s manifesto.

Liquid democracy, in which any voter may delegate their vote to any other, seems even more neutral — one may retain their own vote, or delegate it to anyone. But, of course, one would expect the majority of votes to be delegated to a minority of voters. If a voter’s total held votes are insufficient to break any possible tie between the grouping of those with more votes than them, their held votes are pointless and any voter who is paying attention will reassign their votes to someone more popular. And so, again, there is a limited catalog of choices — and so certain options will be structurally discouraged from being imagined.

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Sortition, as of the ancient Greeks, might seem as though it is totally neutral — and a proxy for direct democracy — but it is still the case that it favors against expertise, popularity, or exceptionality. Very unexpert, mundane, solutions will often be considered.

There is no such thing as a voting method that merely reveals preferences — voting methods always construct those preferences, as well.

When someone says that they are pro-democracy, always ask: which democracy? And why?

Different procedures can structure the same people into wildly different democracies — and, oftentimes, the outcome that the democrat wishes for is implied within the way that they wish for their idea of ‘democracy’ to be structured.

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