Anti-representative democracy and oligarchic capture

The super-rich have captured the electoral-representative institutions of contemporary democratic regimes. The ideal of anti-representative democracy can help us understand and counter this phenomenon.

Lorenzo del Savio Matteo Mameli
16 August 2014

Anti-representative democracy sees the electoral-representative structures common to contemporary democracies as incompatible with true democracy and in need of reform, if not outright elimination. According to this view, electoral-representative structures are irreconcilable with true political equality because they remove political power from citizens. Anti-representative democracy has a critical mission. It strives towards a deeper democratization of society and making existing democratic systems more genuinely democratic.

The ideal of anti-representative democracy resonates with, and can be used to explain, some of the claims and actions of a variety of protest movements and parties, such as the Spanish 15-M Movement (and its recent offshoot, the political party Podemos), Occupy Wall Street (and other branches of the Occupy movement in the US and elsewhere), the Italian Five Star Movement, as well as other movements and parties often labelled “populist” in Europe and South America. The so-called anti-politics that characterizes many of these political groups often takes the shape of a rejection of the way electoral-representative systems work.

Here we will focus on one possible rationale for anti-representative democracy: oligarchic capture. The electoral-representative structures of contemporary democracies are incompatible with true democracy and true political equality because they allow oligarchies to capture political power and take it away from ordinary citizens. Oligarchies comprise super-rich individuals and, more generally, people that command massive concentrations of wealth (even if they do not own it, or even if they own only a fraction of it), such as those in charge of major corporations and financial firms. Electoral-representative structures allow oligarchies to have a disproportionate influence in political decision-making, often resulting in what is effectively a plutocracy (which means “government of the wealthy”).

The electoral-representative institutions of contemporary democracies have been captured by oligarchies. Oligarchs are able to control electoral-representative structures through lobbying, the financing of electoral campaigns, the revolving doors between elected posts and consultancy jobs for big firms, etc. and other mechanisms of this sort. The super-rich can direct the action of elected executives and parliaments and thereby determine the economic policies that affect (often negatively) the rest of the population. Arguably, in the last few decades, these policies have resulted in increasingly more efficient and subtle ways for the super-rich to extract resources from the planet and from common people.

 Extreme polarization of wealth is problematic for many reasons. Economically unequal societies are more violent, less healthy, and their economies tend to be dysfunctional when compared to those of more equal societies. But, among the many reasons for concern, the impact of wealth inequalities on political power stands out. Political equality is good in itself, but it is also good because of its consequences. The more political power is concentrated in the hands of oligarchies, the less political decision-making is responsive to the needs, beliefs, and values of the citizenry at large. This concentration leads to bad policies in areas such as taxation, labour regulations, consumer protection, and protection of the environment, especially -  that is, in all those areas where the interests of the super-rich and the interests of the rest of the population are in conflict. In a variety of different ways, the asymmetries in political power generated by wealth inequalities are often effectively employed to preserve and augment such inequalities. They are used to protect the oligarchs from attempts at redistributing wealth. The concentration of wealth, via its impact on political institutions, reproduces itself over time.

Why would wealth inequalities translate into political inequalities? The mechanisms of political inequality vary according to the social and political context. However, regardless of context, oligarchic political domination has some common features. Huge economic resources give oligarchs powerful means to influence any political process. As Jeffrey Winters has argued in his book Oligarchy (Cambridge University Press, 2011), oligarchies are different from other powerful groups that may be present in a society in that they all share a common objective, namely, protecting their wealth from threats that come from the rest of society. Winters calls this wealth defense. He has identified forms of oligarchic domination in a variety of extremely different societies, with extremely different institutional arrangements. Oligarchic domination was exercised by the senators of the Roman Republic, the war-lords and knights of the Middle Ages, the super-wealthy families of city states in Renaissance Italy, and so on. It has been exercised by mafia clans and reigning dynasties in various parts of the world. However, oligarchic domination also exists in contemporary democracies.

 Oligarchic domination is historically robust. It can only be counteracted via institutional arrangements designed for that purpose. But the institutional arrangements of contemporary electoral-representative democracies are not of this sort. In fact, it could be argued that in many cases they have been designed, at least in part, to ensure that old forms of oligarchic domination can persist in societies with universal suffrage and where in principle, but not in practice, everyone has the chance to access political office via elections.

Oligarchic domination takes different forms in different societies. In contemporary democracies, we have to consider, among other things, the advantages that extreme wealth confers in relation to legal decisions and fiscal procedures. However, when we focus on the political context as narrowly understood, we will notice that in contemporary democracies the super-rich only rarely become politicians themselves – in contrast, for example, with what happened in ancient Rome, where the wealthiest citizens were often members of the Senate. Nowadays, the main tool of oligarchic domination is the capturing of the elected representatives. This can occur both before and after elections. It can occur by means of bribes and illegal forms of corruption, but it can also occur via more subtle and insidious mechanisms, which are usually perfectly compatible with existing legislation.

Elections are often seen as a necessary condition for a political system to be classified as democratic. But elections exclude and alienate most people from political power. Winning elections requires enormous resources, including capital. That is why in the past many theorists saw elections as an aristocratic solution to the problem of appointing politicians. Elections were a way of selecting representatives from a restricted pool, which typically comprised only individuals belonging to the most important (that is, the wealthiest) families in the polity, or individuals with strong ties to such families. Nowadays, the resources required in order to participate and win political competitions in electoral-representative democracies mean that, in general, someone can be elected to a political office only by gaining the support of oligarchies. Oligarchies can make it extremely unlikely that any individual who is hostile to their projects of wealth defense and wealth accumulation will be elected to important political offices.

If elected representatives have not been captured by oligarchies during the electoral campaign, they can be captured after the election (when they have been appointed). Super-rich individuals, corporations and financial firms have huge resources that they can and do use for efficient lobbying. This persuades elected bodies – both legislative bodies and executive bodies – to favour the interests of oligarchies, even when such interests are in conflict with the interests of the rest of the population.

One very important mechanism of oligarchic capture relates to the financing of states. Oligarchs can put very strong pressures on the decisions of executives and parliaments by lending financial resources to states (or other relevant political units). In the past, kings, princes and republics borrowed from wealthy families (often bankers) and were then forced to do what these families asked. In contemporary democracies, oligarchs can exert their influence on politics through the financial markets. According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, democratic policy-making should be “in conformity with the markets” (marktkonform). (The problems generated by this mechanism of oligarchic capture are at the moment particularly acute, for example, in the periphery states of the European Union, which have to borrow money in order to finance their debt in a currency, the Euro, over which they basically have no control.)

The so-called revolving doors between politics and business are also important in this context. It is a two-way traffic. Elected politicians and the regulators that they appoint know that they can get very well-paid jobs as consultants or advisors for big companies once their term ends. And, in the opposite direction, those who have tight links to the oligarchies are much more likely to find the financial and social resources needed to win elections or to be appointed as regulators. More generally, there are many subtle mechanisms that tend to align the interests of politicians and regulators (including, importantly, central bankers) with those of oligarchs.

Since the French Revolution, elected representatives in democratic regimes exercise their mandate freely: they are supposed to represent the nation as a whole rather than the interests and preferences of particular groups within society. In the standard view, an imperative mandate would be an unacceptable regress to a classist Ancien Régime, where delegates rigidly expressed the interests of specific social classes. However, a free mandate opens up a space between citizens and representatives that can be occupied and exploited by oligarchies, or by elected politicians themselves, in order to pursue their interests. This is one reason why some political movements are against a free mandate. We could say that such movements want to reoccupy that space that the oligarchs have occupied. (In a previous article, we have discussed this issue in detail in relation to the Italian Five Star Movement. According to some core members of the movement, elected representatives should be mere spokespersons for the views of the members of the movement as determined by online polling.)

Those who defend the electoral-representative institutions of contemporary democracies – for a recent robust example see Nadia Urbinati’s Democracy Disfigured (Harvard University Press, 2014) – argue that there are mechanisms to ensure that elected representatives behave in ways that promote the interests of ordinary citizens rather than those of oligarchies. Firstly, according to these theorists, if politicians want to be re-elected, they have to behave in ways that further the interests of ordinary citizens, who can provide many votes, as opposed to wealthy minorities that can carry only a small number of votes. Secondly, citizens have at their disposal informal instruments to put pressure on elected representatives even before election time. In particular, the media have a surveillance (watchdog) function and thereby constitute a powerful counter-power. The media, or ordinary citizens through the media, can bring disrepute to elected representatives by denouncing their actions when these favour the interest of the oligarchs rather than the interests of the rest of the population.

 However, neither of these mechanisms of control works. First, consider the threat of not being re-elected. Information about many of the activities of elected representatives is not easily accessible by ordinary citizens. Political decision-making is often opaque. More importantly though, if all the candidates with some chance of being elected have been in one way or another pre-selected by oligarchies and have close links to the interests of the super-wealthy, then elections cannot be a mechanisms for eliminating those politicians who have proven unable to promote the interests of ordinary citizens when such interests conflict with those of oligarchies. This is arguably one reason why fewer and fewer eligible voters actually participate in elections: many ordinary citizens do not see elections as a mechanism for choosing between different ways of doing politics.

Second, consider media counter-power. Without a well-functioning media system, the informal power to put pressure on elected representatives through the threat of discredit has no bite. But most of the media are, directly or indirectly, in the hands of oligarchs. Even when they are not in the hands of oligarchs, the media are often – though not openly and transparently – deferential to the interests of oligarchs. Showing deference to moneyed interests often brings significant benefits to electoral candidates, politicians in office, media owners, and media employees. So, there are strong incentives in favour of such deference.

 The phenomena we have been discussing manifest themselves in different ways in different countries. But in general it can be said that oligarchic capture causes contemporary democratic systems to stray far away from the ideal of political equality. In the last few decades, economic inequalities have exacerbated, and wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a very small section of the human population. This has made oligarchic capture more and more common and more and more efficient.

Progressing toward the ideal of political equality requires combatting oligarchic capture, or at least weakening it and making it less efficient. One good way of doing this is via the redistribution of wealth. However, redistributive projects of the right kind are unlikely to be implemented and to be sufficiently politically stable over time in the absence of profound institutional changes. This is why the ideal of anti-representative democracy and the movements that appeal to it are important at this stage of the history of the idea and practice of democracy.

The slogan “We are the 99%”, which contrasts oligarchies (the 1%, or possibly a smaller fraction) with the rest of the population, is seen by some critics as the expression of an undesirable populism. More generally, nowadays the term “populist” is often used as a derogatory label to refer to movements that – in one way or another – appeal to the ideal of anti-representative democracy. There are many different kinds of populism. Some populisms are xenophobic, discriminatory, and liberticidal. Some are extremely anti-democratic. These kinds of populism are obviously incompatible with the ideal of the political equality of all human beings and need to be avoided. But not all kinds of populism are like this.

Anti-oligarchic populism aims at fighting, weakening, and eventually eliminating oligarchic domination. Anti-oligarchic populism stresses that all people who do not belong to the oligarchies, while different in all sorts of important respects, have one very important interest in common. They all have a fundamental interest in resisting the way oligarchies unjustly take away political power from them, and in resisting the way oligarchies extract resources from them, from their labour and livelihood, from their families and communities, and from the planet they inhabit. Anti-oligarchic populism can and must be non-discriminatory, inclusive, and solidaristic.

 Anti-oligarchic populism is a special version of what we call cooperative populism, a view according to which people must join forces to eliminate all forms of unjust domination, especially those based on socio-economic factors. Anti-oligarchic populism can and must be a force for the further democratization of society. The fact that elements of anti-oligarchic populism, and more generally of cooperative populism, are present in a variety of protest movements – some of which are very different from each other – is in our opinion something positive and instructive. It should remind us to look closely at all of these interesting and valuable movements.

Reversing the trend of increasing economic and political inequalities requires institutional and constituent imagination. The critics of direct forms of democracy argue that contemporary societies are too big and too complex for it to be possible to have democracy without elected representatives with a free mandate. We believe this claim to be false. But whether true or false, everyone should agree that oligarchic capture is an extremely important problem for contemporary democracies. The ideal of anti-representative democracy can guide us towards good ways of grasping the problem and towards good ways of dealing with it. The devastating effects of oligarchic capture on humanity provide a stark contrast.


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