Friday 4 December 2015

Democracy vs the Iron Law of Oligarchy (Again)

The most irritating rhetoric spouted in the British parliamentary debate on Wednesday entailed the phrases ‘pinpoint accuracy’ and ‘precision laser targeting’ to produce ‘maximum lethality’ by ‘highly trained professionals’. The MPs getting high on language they found on the RAF website have clearly never been inside the cockpit of a Tornado (I have). 

This model of fighter aircraft needs to be pensioned off. It has been in use for more than four decades. Rather than computer screens, it uses 1980s dials. Compared with the new Typhoon, it is notoriously difficult to manoeuvre, except in a straight line, and contains so many sensors that even crew admit they are hard to operate.

When a democracy decides to go to war, the people making the decision, in my view, should be informed about the military equipment available to them. They should also be prepared to fight, or send their own children to fight, in person.

Athenians had to Walk the War Walk as well as Talk the War Talk
This was the case in the ancient Athenian Direct Democracy, in which the citizen mass (demos) wielded executive power (kratos). Of course each citizen—let’s call him Hilarios Antonides Bennos—could go along to the Pnyx Hill People’s Assembly to a ‘shall we go to war?’ debate, and get excited about ‘Standing Firm with Our Oldest Allies’ or ‘Attic Values’ or ‘Precision Hoplite Combat’. But if Hilarios Antonides did vote  that way he could personally expect to be standing on the front row of the phalanx, with a 50% chance of survival, within weeks.

I was fascinated by Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to bypass the ludicrous limitations of Representative Democracy by asking what his party members thought. He emailed all of us and requested our views.  This is not Rocket, or even Fighter Jet Science. It is a leader taking seriously his responsibilities to the people who elected him .

It was as long ago as 1911 that a German political theorist called Robert Michels pointed out that representative democracies inevitably deteriorate and turn into oligarchies (‘the iron law of oligarchy', das eherne Gesetz der Oligarchie). Those sanctimonious parliamentarians 'representing' us actually constitute an oligarchy or ‘rule by the few’.

Which leads me to the most toxic sentences in the history of British democracy, constantly cited by MPs to justify misrepresenting their electorate. In 1774 Edmund Burke contested the parliamentary seat for Bristol. His opponent had argued that if he were elected he would regard his own opinions as subordinate to those of his constituents. Burke belligerently asserted the opposite—the transcendent right of (self-evidently intellectually and morally superior) MPs to vote any way they goddam liked:

Edmund Burke Still Haranguing on Bristol Quay
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents... But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The Bristolians, unfathomably, voted for this self-obsessed burk, who was so confident in his own mature judgement, enlightened conscience etc.  But that is any reason why, 239 years later, we should still tolerate such arrogance in our elected representatives?

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